CA FORUM ON ANTHROPOLOGY IN PUBLIC
Current Anthropology, Volume 38, Number 3, June 1997, pp 419-441
Reproduced with permission.
Abstract Article Notes Comments Reply References Cited
In 1976, Ivan Van Sertima proposed that New World civilizations were strongly influenced by diffusion from Africa. The first and most important contact, he argued, was between Nubians and Olmecs in 700 B.C., and it was followed by other contacts from Mali in A.D. 1300. This theory has spread widely in the African-American community, both lay and scholarly, but it has never been evaluated at length by Mesoamericanists. This article shows the proposal to be devoid of any foundation. First, no genuine African artifact has ever been found in a controlled archaeological excavation in the New World. The presence of African-origin plants such as the bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) or of African genes in New World cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) shows that there was contact between the Old World and the New, but this contact occurred too long ago to have involved any human agency and is irrelevant to Egyptian-Olmec contact. The colossal Olmec heads, which resemble a stereotypical "Negroid," were carved hundreds of years before the arrival of the presumed models. Additionally, Nubians, who come from a desert environment and have long, high noses, do not resemble their supposed "portraits." Claims for the diffusion of pyramid building and mummification are also fallacious. 
Abstract Article Notes Comments Reply References Cited
In his 1976 book They Came Before Columbus, Ivan Van Sertima argued that "Negroid" Africans had come to the Americas at various times before the European discovery and had either inspired or influenced the development of the first civilizations to emerge on these continents. Like other pseudoscientific writings that had been published up until that time, the book was either completely ignored or generally dismissed by anthropologists, historians, and other academic professionals. Except for a brief reference by Glyn Daniel (1977), it was never reviewed in any of the professional journals. Daniel, who also reviewed Barry Fell's America B.C. (1976), dismissed it, but neither he nor any other academic professional ever developed a detailed or cogent response to the main thrust of Van Sertima's ideas. As Daniel himself predicted, the book became a profitable venture for both Van Sertima and his publisher. 
Readers were apparently attracted by the real mysteries that surrounded the subject: the origins and evolution of civilizations in the Americas. At the same time, the book also received the attention and enthusiastic support of a small but increasingly influential group of "cultural nationalists" in the African-American community. By the late 1980s Van Sertima's ideas were being heartily endorsed by Molefi Asante, one of the gurus of the Afrocentric movement (Asante 1988:48; 1990:158; 197 n. 43; 1993:136-37; Asante and Matson 1991:15-19). This movement in all its complexity  emerged from the cultural nationalism of the 1960s and 1970s with clearly articulated theories of human development that incorporated Van Sertima's ideas on the origins of civilization in the Americas. According to the Afrocentrists, all of the world's early civilizations, including those of ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, India, China, Europe, and the Americas,  were created or inspired by racially "black" peoples.
In articulating their claims, the Afrocentrists relied very heavily on the ideas of Cheikh Anta Diop (1974, 1991), Chancellor Williams (1987), John G. Jackson (1970), George James (1976), and others.  These writers reformulated the standard 19th- and early 20th-century European and North American racial concepts in such a way that the Afrocentrists could promote a hegemonic "black" model of human development. In his 1974 book, The African Origins of Civilization: Myth or Reality, Diop accepted the standard tripartite division of the human species into "Caucasoid," "Negroid," and "Mongoloid" and subdivided the "black race" into persons with predominantly straight or wavy hair, such as the Dravidians of India, and persons with predominantly curly or tightly coiled hair, such as the Ibo of Nigeria (Diop 1974:164-65, 237). In an attempt to incorporate as many groups as possible into the "Negro" category, Diop also accepted the racist Western definition of "blackness" as any degree of "black" or African ancestry.  Of course, once these race concepts were reformulated, they could be applied to a reinterpreted history of civilization and human development with predictable results.
Accordingly, civilization was said to have originated with the "black" peoples of the Upper Nile in Ethiopia and the Sudan and to have been transmitted from there to the ancient Egyptians, also defined as "black" regardless of their skin color and their other physical characteristics. From its alleged African homeland, civilization was presumably bequeathed to other "black" peoples throughout the world through either direct contact or indirect diffusion. These alleged "black" recipients included the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia, the Sabaeans of South Arabia, the Elamites of southwestern Iran, the Dravidians of India, the Shang of China, and the Minoans of ancient Crete, among others.  In the case of the Americas, a more complicated scenario had to be advanced in order to account for the relative isolation of these continents and the geographical obstacles posed by the Atlantic and the Pacific. This scenario, developed most completely by Van Sertima, was incorporated into the emerging Afrocentric view by the late 1980s. 
According to Van Sertima's hypothesis, the Nubian rulers of ancient Egypt (25th dynasty, 712-664 B.C.) organized an expedition with the help of the Phoenicians to obtain various commodities, including iron, from sources on the Atlantic coast of North Africa, Europe, and the British Isles during the late 8th or early 7th century B.C. This expedition allegedly sailed from the Nile Delta or the Levant across the Mediterranean, through the Pillars of Hercules, and down the Atlantic coast of North Africa, where it was caught in some current or storm that sent it across the Atlantic to the Americas. Following the prevailing wind and ocean currents, the expedition allegedly sailed or drifted westward from some unspecified location in the eastern Caribbean or the Bahamas to the Gulf Coast of Mexico, where it came into contact with the receptive but inferior Olmecs. According to the scenario at this point, the Olmecs presumably accepted the leaders of the Nubian/Egyptian expedition as their rulers ("black warrior dynasts"), and these individuals, in turn, created, inspired, or influenced the creation of the Olmec civilization, which in turn influenced Monte Albán, Teotihuacan, the Classic Maya, and all the other Mesoamerican civilizations that followed. 
In Van Sertima's scenario, the Nubians became the models for the colossal stone heads which the Olmecs produced in the years that followed the alleged contact. They also presided over a mixed crew of voyagers that included Egyptians, Phoenicians, and "several women." The Nubians subsequently provided the impetus for the building of pyramids and ceremonial centers and introduced a number of technological innovations and practices (mummification, cire-perdue metallurgy, the symbolic use of purple murex dye, weaving, etc.) which presumably influenced Mesoamerican religion, mythology, customs, and even the calendar. This is an enormous number of claims, and several large volumes would be needed to deal with all of them. In this essay we will discuss the evidence that would be most significant if it were true. We will deal elsewhere with Van Sertima's historical methodology, his use of sources, and his writings on iconography and linguistics (Ortiz de Montellano, Haslip-Viera, and Barbour 1997).
Van Sertima (1992a:16; 1992c:65; 1995:73) occasionally says that the Olmecs were not pure Africans or that the African voyagers only influenced and were not the main catalyst for the rise of civilization in the Americas, but these disclaimers are merely pro forma. The cumulative total of his claims amounts to a decisive influence on most aspects of the Olmec culture (religion, language, pyramids, customs, weaving, metalworking, dyeing, etc.). If the Nubians were not "godlike" or superior, why would the Olmecs on short acquaintance put forth the herculean efforts required to transport and carve their likenesses in basalt? If the Nubians were not superior, why would most of Van Sertima's followers attribute the "sudden" rise of the Olmecs to Egypto-Nubian influences? 
Van Sertima also claimed that "black Africans" made other journeys to the Americas at various times after the 7th century B.C. The most important of these alleged voyages was that of Abu-Bakari II, the Mandingo emperor of Mali, in A.D. 1311. According to Van Sertima, Abu-Bakari embarked from some unspecified location on the western coast of his dominions (Senegambia) with a large fleet of ships and sailed across the Atlantic to the Gulf Coast of Mexico, where his expedition came into contact with the peoples of the Vera Cruz region, the Valley of Mexico, and the Valley of Oaxaca. These peoples were profoundly influenced by Abu-Bakari and his Mandingo agents in the areas of technology, religion, and the arts in the period after contact was established.
In the years since the publication of They Came Before Columbus, Van Sertima has revised his hypothesis only slightly and with great reluctance. For example, in the early 1980s he pushed hack the date for the earliest possible contact between the Olmecs and the Egypto-Nubians to the early 10th century B.C. in an attempt to account for the revised dates established for the origins of Olmec civilization at that time (see Coe and Diehl 1980, Rust and Sharer 1988), The revised chronology was also used by Van Sertima to claim that the Nubians had had a strong influence over the Egyptians from the early 11th to the middle of the 7th century B.C. (Van Sertima 1992c:60-61, 67, 69).  More recently, he has grudgingly accepted the Olmec chronology by emphasizing the alleged importance of the "black-Egyptian" in pharaonic society and by claiming that "the black African . . . played a dominant role in the Old World at either end of the dating equation, be it 1200 B.C. or 700 B.C." (Van Sertima 1992b:38-39; 1995:74, 76). 
Van Sertima has nurtured a coterie of enthusiastic supporters among the Afrocentrists and the cultural nationalists in general.  These individuals are inclined to promote his concepts as historical truths. They have also launched impassioned attacks against the academic establishment for not supporting Van Sertima's and other questionable theories.  The recent publication of one of his essays by the Smithsonian Institution Press (Van Sertima 1995) has conferred some academic respectability on his views, and he has been praised by St. Clair Drake (1987:312) and Manning Marable (1991:22), two non-Afrocentric scholars with considerable reputations. His hypothesis has become almost an article of faith within the African-American community. It is taught across the country in African-American and Africana studies programs that use Maulana Karenga's Introduction to Black Studies (1993) and similar texts. It is taught in the large urban school districts that have adopted Afrocentric curricula (Clarke 1989; Kunjufu 1987a,b; see also Ortiz de Montellano 1991, 1995). The presumably "Negroid" Olmec heads have become staples of African-American historical museums and exhibitions. It is therefore no wonder that students in colleges and universities across the country are mystified by the dismissive statements occasionally uttered by academic professionals when Van Sertima's ideas are discussed. African-American students, in particular, have not been impressed by the abbreviated critiques that have been published thus far. They are also generally suspicious of the academic establishment, with its record of "neglect" and "distortion" with regard to Africa, and have called for a detailed response to Van Sertima's ideas. This article is an attempt to address the issues articulated by students and concerned educators with regard to the validity of Van Sertima's hypotheses and the failure of the academic establishment to confront them in a systematic way. It is important for anthropologists and archaeologists to deal with this question because of its prevalence and because it diminishes the real accomplishments of Native American cultures. As Robert Sharer and Wendy Ashmore (1979:45) put it, "Archaeology has a responsibility to prevent pseudo-archaeologists from robbing humanity of the real achievements of past cultures." This essay will examine Van Sertima's claims to determine whether they have any validity or foundation in the evidence that has been collected thus far by scholars in the humanities and the social and physical sciences.
It is necessary to limit our discussion here to the most important claims and the most convincing types of evidence. Authentic artifacts found in controlled archaeological excavations provide absolute proof of contact; however, no such artifact of African origin has ever been found in the New World, The archaeological discovery of nonnative plants can also provide good evidence of contact. Van Sertima's crucial claim deals with the influence of the alleged Nubian/Egyptian visitors of the 25th dynasty on the Olmec culture, because at this time and in this culture a number of definitive Mesoamerican traits presumably appear. If Van Sertima and others are correct, Mesoamerican civilization owes a great debt to Egypt. If the idea of Egyptian contact with the Olmecs is invalid, then other claims by Van Sertima and his colleagues are greatly weakened. For example, the proposed A.D. 1311 expedition from Mali to Mexico, even if it were true, would be less meaningful because the most significant Mesoamerican cultural traits (worldview, calendars, deities, etc.) can clearly be shown to have been present prior to that time, and this violates a cardinal rule in the classic diffusionist argument - that the diffused traits must be present in the donor culture and absent in the recipient culture prior to the presumed contact.
For the most part, our arguments will deal with this presumed earliest contact, because only contact at this stage of development might have been able to have a real impact on Mesoamerican cultures. There is still some question whether Egyptian contact with the Gulf Olmecs would have been sufficient to achieve this impact. Although some scholars (Diehl and Coe 1995) still argue that the Gulf Olmecs represent the "mother culture" of Mesoamerica, others, among them Flannery and Marcus (1994:389), prefer the term "sister cultures" because it is clear that parallel developments were taking place in other regions of Mesoamerica. Clark (1991; Clark and Blake 1994) claims that the Mesoamerican tradition began among the Mokaya of the Soconusco region of Chiapas, who by 1650 B.C. were the first to reach a chiefdom level  and who influenced the subsequent Gulf Olmecs. Flannery and Marcus (1994:385-90) show that the 8°-west-of-true-north orientation of ceremonial buildings and the use of stucco at La Venta and elsewhere appeared first in Oaxaca between 1650 and 1520 B.C. Grove (1989) has proposed that much of the iconography of the Early Formative is merely the first representation in ceramics of a body of beliefs shared by the common ancestors of many Formative societies. Marcus (1991) claims that the earliest dated stone monuments appeared not in the Gulf Olmec zone but in the Zapotec region of Oaxaca.  Nevertheless, we will deal with the Gulf Olmecs because we agree with Tolstoy (1989:289) that by San Lorenzo times they "had reached a point on the evolutionary scale that was beyond that at which San José (Oaxaca) or Tlatilco (Central Mexico) can be placed." During the Early Formative (1793-1011 B.C.) many of the definitive Mesoamerican traits were present both in the Gulf Coast Olmec and in other contemporaneous cultures. Because relatively little information is available about the Olmecs, Van Sertima is able to make iconographic claims which, if made for the Aztecs, could be unequivocally disproved on the basis of texts and codices gathered after the conquest.
The Colossal Olmec Heads
The main pieces of evidence presented by Van Sertima are the monumental carved basalt Olmec heads. To a lay observer, it seems at first glance that these grey, "black"-looking heads, with their thick lips and flat noses, must be images of Africans. This impression makes the other claims appear to be support for an obvious conclusion. However, this is a fundamental error. The people claimed by Van Sertima and other Afrocentrists to have influenced the Olmecs (and to be the models for the heads) are Nubians or Egyptians, that is, North and East Africans, whereas the slave ancestors of African-Americans came primarily from tropical West Africa. These groups are very different and do not look alike.  Flat noses are particularly inappropriate as racial markers, because the shape of the nose is primarily a function of climatic factors such as the ambient temperature and the moisture content of the air.
FIG. 1. Kpeda man from Benin. (Photo West Africa Study Trip/Guerin Montilus.)
FIG. 2. Adja men from Benin. (Photo West Africa Study Trip/Guerin Montilus.)
One of the functions of the nose is to moisten the air before it goes to the lungs. In areas where the air is very dry, such as deserts, a larger mucous area is required to moisten inspired air, and this necessitates a longer and narrower nose (Molnar 1983:71-73). Both the Olmecs and the West African ancestors of African-Americans have short, flat noses because they lived in wet, tropical areas; Nubians and Egyptians have longer, thinner noses because they have lived in a desert.  Comparison of figures 1 and 2 with figures 3-5 reveals that although these two groups differ in the shape of the nose and the lips, both are dolichocephalic and prognathous. Most of the colossal Olmec heads are not; only 3 of the 17 Olmec heads show a degree of prognathism.
FIG. 4. Nubian woman. (Photo Friedrich W. Hinkel.)
|FIG. 3. Nubian from Koyekka. (Photo Friedrich W. Hinkel.)
FIG. 5. Nubian from the village of Semna. (Photo Friedrich W. Hinkel.)
Figures 6-9 clearly show that these heads do not resemble Nubians (having flat noses, thick lips, and epicanthic-folded eyelids and lacking dolichocephaly or prognathism) or, for that matter, West Africans (having epicanthic folds and lacking dolichocephaly or prognathism).
FIG. 6. Monument 5, San Lorenzo, front and rear views. (Drawing by Felipe Dávalos, reprinted from Coe and Diehl , courtesy of Michael D. Coe.)
FIG. 7. Monument 5, San Lorenzo, side views. (Drawing by Felipe Dávalos, reprinted from Coe and Diehl , courtesy of Michael D. Coe.)
FIG. 8. Monument 17, San Lorenzo, front and rear views. (Drawing by Felipe Dávalos, reprinted from Coe and Diehl , courtesy of Michael D. Coe.)
FIG. 9. Monument 17, San Lorenzo, side views. (Drawing by Felipe Dávalos, reprinted from Coe and Diehl , courtesy of Michael D. Coe.)
The people represented in the Olmec sculptures had short, round, flat faces with thick lips, flat noses, and epicanthic folds; that is, they resembled people who still live m the tropical lowlands of Mexico (see figs. 10 and 11).
FIG. 11. Tzotzil from Chiapas. (Photo B Reyes, reprinted from Morley .)
FIG. 10. Woman from Olmec area. (Photo Donald Corddry, reprinted from Bernal .)
Van Sertima (1992b, 1995) places great emphasis on Tres Zapotes head 2 (also known as the Nestepe or Tuxtla head)  because it has seven braids dangling from the back, which he claims (1992c:57; 1994:296, fig. 1c), citing no supporting evidence, to be a characteristically Ethiopian hairstyle.  He also asserts that the braids are "probably the best hidden secret in Mesoamerican archaeology" (1992b:37), that the "head was never published outside of Mexico" (1992a:7), and that "this photograph was kept in the dark (and I think the blackout was deliberate)" (1992b:38; 1995:74).  To support his claim (1992c:37; 1995:74) he quotes the Mexican Olmec scholar Beatriz de la Fuente, who states, "If at any time, one could imagine that there were Negroes in Mesoamerica, it would be after seeing Head 2 of Tres Zapotes, the one that is most removed from the physiognomy of our Indian ancestors" (de la Fuente 1971:58, our translation).  However, he overlooks her comment on the next page that "certainly the colossal heads do not represent individuals of the Negro or Ethiopian race as José Melgar, the first Westerner to see one more than a hundred years ago, supposed. We have to agree that in them are recorded, on a heroic scale, the ethnic characteristics of the ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica, characteristics that are still preserved in some contemporaneous natives" (de la Fuente 1971:59, our translation). 
Some Olmec heads are dark not because they represent black people but because they were made of dark stone.  If Luckert (1976:41-49, 70-76, 90-107) is correct and the Olmecs associated volcanoes with rain and fertility, then volcanic rocks (basalt, jade, and serpentine) would have had symbolic importance and would have been appropriate for important sculptures. These heads represent an enormous amount of work, having been transported from quarries as much as 70 kilometers away without the use of wheels or beasts of burden and then carved with stone tools, bronze and iron being unknown. The implication that Afrocentrists draw from this is that the Egyptian civilization was so superior that the Olmecs regarded its "black" representatives almost as gods and dropped whatever they were doing to devote enormous effort over many years to quarrying, transporting, and carving their likenesses.
Van Sertima's description of the contact between the Nubian-Egyptians and the Olmecs makes it appear as if the Olmec civilization arose suddenly after the period in question. However, the civilization of the Olmecs had a long period of gestation in situ. San Lorenzo was occupied from the beginning of the Formative, 1793 B.C. (Coe and Diehl 1980), and La Venta was occupied from 1658 B.C. onward (Rust and Sharer 1988), San Lorenzo flourished from 1428 to 1011 B.C. (1200-900 b.c.), a period characterized by three-dimensional monumental sculptures including the colossal heads (Coe and Diehl 1980, vol.1:395-96). There was also a San Lorenzo phase at La Venta, 1150-800 B.C., during which monumental sculpture was produced. La Venta rose to prominence during the Middle Formative, 905-400 B.C., a period characterized by low-relief sculptures.
Although the exact dating of the colossal heads is a complex matter, they pose a serious chronological problem for Van Sertima's hypothesis. To date, 17 heads have been found, 10 in San Lorenzo, 4 in La Venta, 2 in Tres Zapotes, and 1 in Cobata (Cyphers 1995:16). The majority of the heads in San Lorenzo were found in a ravine where they were deposited by erosion, have no clear stratigraphic association, and were dated by iconographic cross-ties. However, 16 other monuments had stratigraphic associations placing them in the final stages of the San Lorenzo B phase (1011 B.C.), and therefore Coe and Diehl (1980, vol. 1:294-95; Coe, Diehl, and Struiver 1967) conclude that these heads cannot be younger than 1011 B.C.  However, San Lorenzo heads 6, 7, and 8 have original placements. Ann Cyphers has radiocarbon-dated the undisturbed context of head 7 and found it to be older than 1011 B.C. She concludes on the basis of the uniformity of sculpting technique and style that all these heads fall within the Early Formative (personal communication, 1995). A number of Olmec heads may be even older than they seem. Porter (1989) has good evidence that many were made by recarving massive thrones and speculates that a ruler's throne was recarved into his image after his death.
The excavators of La Venta also considered the heads to belong to the Early Formative, that is, earlier than 1011 B.C. (Holleman, Ambro, and O'Connell 1968), although this cannot be proven because they were relocated to a Middle Formative context. Lowe (1989:43) states that many Olmec specialists consider most or all of the colossal heads (at San Lorenzo, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, Cobata) to have been made in the Early Formative. De la Fuente (1971:11, our translation) speaks of "a point that everyone who has dealt with the problem agrees on: all the heads were carved during a relatively short period that varies between one hundred and, at the most, two hundred years."  Because it is impossible to date all the heads unequivocally, one cannot prove that the San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes heads were contemporaneous. They might have been sequential, and carving might have extended into the Middle Formative. However, Cypher's definitive dating of San Lorenzo head 7 proves that "Negroid-looking" heads were being carved, mutilated, and buried between 1428 and 1011 B.C., that is, prior to 1200 B.C. and centuries before the alleged arrival of Van Sertima's Nubian voyagers.
Van Sertima's postulated crew included Phoenicians because of their sailing expertise and because he had identified a carved portrait of a "Phoenician merchant captain" on a stela at La Venta (Van Sertima 1976: pl. 22). Unfortunately, this "Phoenician" could not have been a shipmate of the Nubians (in 1200 or 700 B.C.), because sculpted stela were produced during the Middle Formative period, several hundred years later than the colossal heads (Lowe 1989:63-67).
In addition to seeing "Negroid" traits in the Olmec stone heads, Van Sertima tries to establish parallels between the pyramid complexes of the Nile Valley and the mounds or platform structures at La Venta. References are made to the "north-south" orientation of "pyramids," to "step pyramids," to their astronomical alignment, to the dual function of "pyramids" as both "tomb and temple," to a system of drains, moats, and "sacred pools," to the complex of walls which surrounded the ceremonial precincts, and to the "fact" that the Olmec "pyramid" complexes appear for the first time during the alleged contact period (Van Sertima 1976:32, 33, 155, 156; 1992a:12-13, 15; 1992b:48; 1992c:60, 76-79; 1995:87-89). In drawing these parallels Van Sertima is suggesting that the Olmecs were influenced by Egyptian and Nubian architecture, but the evidence from the archaeological sites themselves fails to support this assertion in several important ways.
For example, large pyramids were not being built in Egypt or in Nubia at the end of the 13th century B.C.; the great age of pyramid building had ended much earlier. The last step pyramid was built in 2680 B.C., and the last large regular pyramid was Khenjefer's (ca. 1777 B.C.). In 1200 B.C. the Egyptians either buried their dead in secret, as was the case with all the pharaohs of this period, or constructed small tombs that might incorporate small, pointed pyramids into their overall design. All of these tombs, such as those at Deir el Medina, were quite small, and none of them were more than about 20 ft. in height (Edwards 1985 :225-30, 232-34; see also Fakhry 1961:251-53; Lepre 1990). 
The evidence for Van Sertima's other presumed contact period (the late 8th and early 7th century B.C.) is likewise problematical or nonexistent. The Egyptians continued to bury their dead in secret or constructed the same kinds of diminutive tombs with small pointed pyramids that they had built in the 13th century B.C. In Nubia pyramids were built for the first time at El Kurru in 751 B.C. (Fakhry 1961:251-53), but these structures were also quite small and bore no resemblance to the rectangular, oval, or conical mounds or platform structures built by the Olmecs. Like their Egyptian counterparts of the same period, the Nubian pyramids were generally tall and pointed, with an average slope of 60-70° and an average base of 30-40 sq. ft. The Nubian pyramids were also connected to small Egyptian-style mortuary temples, which faced southeast, in contradiction to Van Sertima's claim that all such structures had a "north-south" orientation. The Nubian pyramids were also built with "gravel," "sandstone," and "solid stone masonry" and contained burial chambers in which were found figurines, painted mortuary scenes, written texts, and other artifacts in the Egyptian and Egypto-Nubian style (Edwards 1985:235, 236-39; Adams 1984:256-57, 266-67, 278-85; Dunham 1950). In contrast, the Olmec structures were built of different layers of carefully selected earth and clay in various colors and were apparently used primarily for ceremonial and religious rituals rather than for the burial of the dead. They also lack any evidence of figurines, painted mortuary scenes, written texts, or any other artifact in the Egyptian or Egypto-Nubian style.
The Olmec mounds or platform structures of the Middle Formative were relatively large compared with the Nubian pyramids of the same period. At La Venta they were mostly 200-400-sq. ft. rectangular structures with sloping sides and flat tops, which apparently served as platforms for temples and other structures made of thatch or some other perishable material. There were also courtyards, plazas with palisades, and circular, oval, or pentagonal mounds, but none of these structures resembled the Nubian pyramids and their affiliated buildings. The La Venta stepped pyramid, although deeply eroded and conelike, is 120 ft. high and has a base diameter of 420 ft. (Heizer 1968; Soustelle 1985:33). Van Sertima continues to use an old photograph of an outdated reconstruction of this edifice to insist that it was a four-sided pyramid comparable to those built by the ancient Egyptians and Nubians (Van Sertima 1995:88, fig. 3-16; Diehl 1981:76-78, 79-80; see also Lowe 1989). 
Hyperdiffusionists often complain that Establishment scholars dogmatically refuse to admit that pre-Columbian contacts occurred at all, but this is not the case. It is now generally accepted that Vikings came to the New World about A.D. 1044 (Davies 1979:229-30; Morison 1971; Stiebing 1984:159-62; Wilson 1992). This acceptance is based on several genuine Scandinavian artifacts found by Ingstad in a well-conducted archaeological dig at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, and dated to approximately A.D. 1044 (Ingstad 1964, 1969), The archaeological discoveries at L'Anse aux Meadows validated the sagas of Leif Eriksson and Bjarni Herjolfsson describing their round-trip expeditions to the New World, which scholars had regarded skeptically prior to archaeological corroboration (Morison 1971). There are no such written records of the return of any expedition from Africa to the New World. Van Sertima (1976:77) dismisses the Viking contact: "The Vikings brought no new plant, influenced no act, introduced no ritual, left no identifiable trace of their blood in the Native Americans. Like waves, they broke for a moment on alien sands and then receded." What must be remembered is that not a single authentic African artifact has ever been found in a controlled archaeological context, and therefore the evidence for a Viking presence in pre-Columbian America is much stronger than all the supposed claims for a Nubian or African influence. Furthermore, if in fact all we had was an African site comparable to L'Anse aux Meadows, there would be little interest in Afrocentric circles for writing books about it. Their political agenda is not just to show that Africans arrived in the New World sometime in the past  but that, being a superior civilization, they deeply influenced the native cultures. When two cultures meet there is a reciprocal exchange of words, foods, and customs,  but one searches in vain for examples in Van Sertima of Nahuatl words or Mesoamerican beliefs in African cultures. He does argue for a pre-Columbian introduction of maize into Africa (Van Sertima 1976:240-50; 1995), but given the speed with which maize and cassava became staples after the Portuguese introduced them into Africa, a pre-Columbian introduction should have produced a much wider distribution and importance than what Van Sertima claims.
If no genuine artifacts are found, the next most credible evidences for contacts between peoples are plants, but, as in all these diffusionist arguments, the temporal sequence must be correct; the plant in question must be shown to have been used or domesticated earlier in the proposed place of origin than in the proposed destination. This is not the case for African plants. Baker (1970:62) summarizes his discussion of possible contacts thus: "On present evidence it can hardly be said that cultivated plants of the New World provide a foundation for the belief that there were important cultural exchanges between the Americas and the Old World in pre-Columbian days." A volume devoted specifically to the question of pre-Columbian contacts, in which a number of proponents of contact (including several upon whom Van Sertima relied for botanical evidence) participated, concludes as follows: "The consensus of botanical evidence given in the symposium seems to be that there is no hard and fast evidence for any pre-Columbian introduction of any single plant or animal across the ocean from the Old World to the New World or vice-versa. This is emphatically not to say that it could not have occurred" (Riley et al. 1971:452-53).
The situation with regard to the evidence has not changed since 1971. By A.D. 1400, Africans were growing five sets of domesticated crops: (1) plants first domesticated in the Near East, which were grown in North Africa, including Egypt (wheat, barley, peas, and beans), (2) plants domesticated in the Sahel zone of North Africa (cotton, sesame, watermelon, sorghum, and pearl millet), which became staples in sub-Saharan Africa, (3) plants domesticated in the wet, tropical climate of West Africa (African yam, rice, oil palm, kola nut), (4) plants domesticated and found only in Ethiopia (finger millet, noog, teff), and, finally, plants imported to Madagascar by the Southeast Asians who first settled that island (bananas, Asian yam, taro, Asian rice) (Diamond 1994). We will not discuss the last two groups.
Plants were first domesticated in the Near East (7600-7000 B.C.) and spread from there to other areas (Zohary and Hopf 1993:228-34). Farming villages first appeared in the Nile Valley of Egypt between 5000 and 4500 B.C. (Burenhult 1993:42-43; Hassan 1988). The earliest-known wheat and barley in Africa were found in the Fayum and are dated about 4400 B.C. (Wendorf et al. 1992). In the Sudan, a site dated about 4800 B.C. showed evidence of the use of wild plants but not of cultivated forms (Krzyzaniak 1991). In the Sahara, the herding of cattle, sheep, and goats as well as the intensive use of wild sorghum and millet was seen at the earliest by 6000 B.C., with domestication taking place sometime after that (Wendorf et al. 1992; Burenhult 1993:42-43). Zohary and Hopf (1993:234) point out that the time and place of origin of rice, sorghum, common millet, and cotton are only partially understood but that agriculture came much later to sub-Saharan Africa. Domesticated plants are well documented in West Africa only from 1200 B.C. (the date of the earliest millet) onward (Burenhult 1993:44-46). Burenhult summarizes (p. 46): "Whenever various African plants were domesticated, plant cultivation was largely, if not entirely, restricted to the northwestern and southeastern parts of sub-Saharan Africa until between 500 B.C. and 300 B.C." After the first century A.D., the great Bantu expansion spread the sub-Saharan domesticated plants across the continent (Diamond 1994). Since plant domestication in the New World began in 7000 B.C., it is clear that only Egypt and the Sahel are areas in which domestication preceded or was contemporaneous with that in the New World and that sub-Saharan African agriculture is too recent to have been a source of domesticated plants in the New World. The only plants that really require discussion are cotton, the bottle gourd, and maize.
The bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), although not a food plant, was domesticated early because of its usefulness as a container. The wild gourd is endemic to tropical Africa and originated there (Whitaker 1971, Whitaker and Bemis 1976). However, cultivated bottle gourds earlier than 7000 B.C. were recovered in the Ocampo caves in Mexico (Whitaker, Cutler, and MacNeish 1957, Whitaker and Bemis 1976), while the oldest cultivated forms in South America date to about 3000 B.C. (Whitaker 1971). Lanning (1963) reported a much earlier site, but the gourds there were probably gathered rather than cultivated. Remains of L. siceraria were found in Egyptian tombs dated about 3300-3500 B.C. (Whitaker and Bemis 1976). Thus gourds were cultivated in the New World much earlier than in Egypt. Whitaker and Carter (1954, 1961) have shown that gourds can float for as long as a year without the seeds' losing the capacity to germinate. If a gourd on its arrival in the New World was tossed up on the beach by a storm and broken so that the seeds could escape or picked up by a curious person and transported inland, the gourd would spread. There is no need to posit human transport to the New World for this plant. Additionally, it makes little sense for persons accidentally making a sea voyage to load up the boat with these bulky, nearly inedible fruits (Baker 1970:49-50). The presence of the gourd in the New World predates any domestication in West Africa.
Cotton presents a number of problems. There are four species of cultivated cotton: African cotton (Gossypium herbaceum) and Asian cotton (G. arboreum) have 13 large chromosomes (AA), and the New World species G. hirsutum, of Central American origin, and G. barbadense, originating in South America, have 26 (13 large and 13 small) chromosomes (AADD). Since no cotton with 13 large chromosomes is found in the New World and no cotton with only 13 small chromosomes is native to the Old World, the New World tetraploid cottons must have arisen from a hybridization of a New World species (DD) with an Old World species (AA) leading to a doubling of the chromosome number (Baker 1970:57-61). The question is how and when this hybridization took place. Van Sertima (1976:180-91; 1992) argues, following Stephens (1966), that cotton seeds would not have floated and retained their viability long enough to cross the Atlantic or the Pacific, although they could have made journeys of up to 1,000 miles. He then argues that the "seeds of the African diploid cotton could not have drifted by themselves across the ocean but had to come to the New World in the hands of African men. . . . African man, bearing cottons, made the drift journey to the Americas in the fourth millennium B.C." (Van Sertima 1976:191). 
In considering this argument, temporal relationships must again be examined. The earliest G. herbaceum in Africa (2500 B.C.) was found in Afyea, Egyptian Nubia, where cotton seed and lint hairs intermediate between those of wild forms and those of cultivated species were obtained, but there was no sign of weaving at that time (Zohary and Hopf 1993:128). Cloth fragments (G. arboreum) dated to 3000 B.C. have been found in the Indus Valley (Hutchison 1962; Baker 1970:60; Phillips 1976). These dates are later than the dates for New World cottons and violate the temporal-sequence rule for diffusion. Junius Bird found evidence for the long use of cotton textiles (G. barbadense) at Huaca Prieta, Peru, dated at 2500 B.C. (Hutchison 1962, Phillips 1976). The oldest archaeological remains containing cotton cloth fibers and boll fragments of G. hirsutum come from Tehuacan, Mexico, dated about 3500 B.C. (Smith 1968). Phillips (1976) and Wendel, Brubaker, and Percival (1992) point out that this cotton was fully domesticated and does not represent the earliest domestication of G. hirsutum. Baker (1970:61) points out that wild G. hirsutum has been found on islands in the Caribbean and in Yucatan and that G. barbadense is found on the coasts of Ecuador and Peru and the wild form on the Galapagos Islands. Baker concludes that "all of this evidence suggests that man had nothing to do with the origins of tetraploid cotton, but that he domesticated hirsutum and barbadensis separately in the New World." The time involved in forming hybrids and subsequently diffusing these tetraploid species as widely as they are found means that the time of initial hybridization was thousands of years prior to Van Sertima's postulated 4th-millennium-B.C. drift voyage (Phillips 1976). Cytogenetic studies by Phillips (1963) do not support the theory of a recent origin of New World cottons. Even Stephens (1971:406-7), upon whom Van Sertima relies, argued that cotton seed would have been transported by some form of natural raft and points out that an exclusively wild tetraploid species G. tomentosum, probably derived from an ancestor in Mexico, had somehow become established in Hawaii (a much longer distance than the one involved in a trans-Atlantic crossing).  DeJoode and Wendel (1992) cite studies by Fryxell (1979) on the seed and capsule buoyancy and salt-water tolerance of Gossypium and a number of wild populations separated by salt water in concluding that oceanic dispersion of this genus has been important. Stephens (1971:406-7) also mentions research by Vernon Proctor, who fed wild cotton seeds to killdeers and showed that the seeds were retained in their guts for days without loss of viability. Van Sertima does not quote Stephens's (1971:407) conclusion: "Because of the possibilities of natural and accidental dispersal, one is forced to the conclusion that the geographical distribution of the 'wild' forms of cotton per se cannot be used critically as supporting evidence for early transoceanic cultural contacts. Archaeological evidence of spindle whorls, cordage, fabrics, or any other artifact indicating the use would be far more satisfactory." As we have noted, this is precisely the point. No such artifact has ever been found. Citing Stephens (1971), Van Sertima (1994) argues that feral cotton found in the Cape Verde Islands is derived from New World cotton introduced by the Portuguese from Guinea in A.D. 1462. This proves according to Van Sertima that round trips to the New World took place before Columbus. Stephens (1971:413) points out, however, that the Portuguese introduced many New World crops into the Cape Verde Islands in the 16th century and that New World cotton could also have been introduced after Columbus's voyage.
Van Sertima relies extensively on Jeffreys (1953, 1963, 1971), who claims that the Arabs had made a round trip to the New World and introduced maize to Africa prior to A.D. 1492. Jeffreys's arguments are primarily linguistic and mythological with little archaeological support and have been severely criticized because of this (Willet 1962 and 9 of 11 commentators on Jeffreys 1971). He concludes, on the basis of an article by Li (1961) that Van Sertima also cites, that Arabs had crossed the Atlantic well before A.D. 1100 and also described maize. Li identified the destination described in. two Chinese texts dated A.D. 1175 and 1225 as Maracaibo, Venezuela. He also identified melons described as "six feet round . . . enough for a meal for twenty or thirty men" as pumpkins and "grains of wheat... three inches long" as kernels of large-seeded Andean flour maize (Li 1961, quoted by Van Sertima 1976:238-39; see also Fritze 1993:179-80). How anyone could take as fact rather than as fanciful invention pumpkins 6 ft. in diameter is beyond us. Mangelsdorf (1974:205) points out that the proposed Andean maize is in fact post-Columbian and is not found in plant remains in archaeological sites or depicted in prehistoric ceramics. Although corn is particularly well suited to be preserved archaeologically and has been found in abundance throughout its range in the New World, including the wet tropics, "not a single corncob, unmistakably pre-Columbian, has yet been found in any part of the Old World" (Mangelsdorf 1974:206). Corn was grown in Spain by 1498. Giovanni Ramusio saw it growing in Venice in 1554, and by 1560 the Portuguese were growing it in the Congo (S. Coe 1994:15-16). Mauny (1971), citing an A.D. 1605 report by Pieter de Marees that he considers to be the first true reference to maize in Africa, argues that maize was brought by the Portuguese from the West Indies to São Tomé and then transmitted to the coast (where it had been unknown) and to other parts of Africa after A.D. 1550. In considering the rapidity with which the cultivation of corn was diffused throughout Africa after its introduction by the Portuguese, Miracle's (1966:196) observation that "regardless of how long maize may have been established in eastern Africa, it was little observed before the end of the sixteenth century" is quite revealing.
Van Sertima (1976:156-62; 1995:86-87) continues to claim that the Egyptians brought mummification to the New World. His only sources for this claim are the discredited hyperdiffusionist authors of the early 20th century, whom he quotes from Mackenzie (1923). All of his citations except for those that refer to Palenque ultimately derive from Grafton Elliot Smith, a prolific hyperdiffusionist who believed that all civilization derived from Egypt, or his disciple W.J. Perry (see n. 7). Elliot Smith proposed that this "Heliolithic" culture had first spread to Asia and was taken from there to America. The diffusion of mummification from Egypt to the rest of the world was central to his thesis. This thesis was thoroughly demolished in 1928 by Roland B. Dixon's The Building of Cultures (Wauchope 1962:21-25; Davies 1979:159-60) - a problem that Van Sertima ignores.
Citing no original sources, Van Sertima (1976:157) claims:
We have indisputable proof of Mexican mummification. . . . one of the best examples is the mummified figure in the sarcophagus at Palenque. Three features of this Palenque burial indicate an Egyptian influence. The jade mask on the face of the dead, the fact of mummification itself, and the flared base of the sarcophagus. . . . Egyptians made sarcophagi with a flared base to enable them to stand it up because their burials were vertical. . . . The Mexicans, like the Nubians, buried in a horizontal position, yet at Palenque the flared base is retained, although it serves no function. The retention of such a nonfunctional element ... is among the clearest indications of an influence. A borrowed artifact often goes through an initial period of "slavish imitation" before it is restructured to suit local needs.
Van Sertima is wrong on all counts. Every basic text on the Maya states that the sarcophagus contained a skeleton not a mummy (Benson 1967:92; Thompson 1954:77-80). Any interested party can verify this by looking at the photograph of Pacal's  skeleton in the sarcophagus (Morley, Brainerd, and Sharer 1983:125, fig. 4.22; the photograph has been published in this text since 1956). From this or any other picture of the open sarcophagus one can also verify that the "flared base" is, in fact, a widening of the open interior of the slab, not the bottom of the sarcophagus or a "slavish imitation" of an Egyptian prototype. For Van Sertima's claim to be true, it would have required the Mesoamericans to imitate the Egyptians from 800 B.C. until A.D. 683 (almost 1,500 years) without any evidence of an intervening culture transmitting any trait. It should also be noted that jade death masks were never used by the ancient Egyptians.
Finally, if the source of diffusion is the oldest place where the practice is found, perhaps travelers from the New World went to Egypt and taught them how to mummify the deceased. The oldest mummies in the world are those associated with the Chinchorro culture of Chile (Arriaza 1995a). The oldest mummy there is dated 5050 ± 135 B.C. (Arriaza 1995b:42, 57; Allison 1985 ). This is 2,000 to 3,000 years earlier than in Egypt, where artificial preservation of corpses began in the Old Kingdom (ca. 2686-2181 B.C.) (Davis 1993).
There is hardly a claim in any of Van Sertima's writings that can be supported by the evidence found in the archaeological, botanical, linguistic, or historical record. He employs a number of tactics commonly used by pseudoscientists (Cole 1980; Radner and Radner 1982:27-52; Ortiz de Montellano 1995; Williams 1988), including an almost exclusive use of outdated secondary sources and a reliance on the pseudoscientific writing of others. One finds very few references to primary sources, to archaeological site reports, or to up-to-date publications by scholars who have actually done original research or who have dug in the field. One might get the impression that there had been no research in Mesoamerica since 1920. He claims linguistic and cultural influences between peoples and cultures that existed thousands of years apart without any evidence of an intermediate transmitting culture. Chronologies and sequences are completely disregarded; for example, the use of purple in Mixtec codices of the 15th century A.D. is said to prove that Egyptians brought Tyrian purple to the Olmecs in 800 B.C. (Van Sertima 1995:80). The chronology offered produces contradictions to the arguments he advances. If Egyptians contacted the Olmecs around 1200 B.C. in accordance with Jairazbhoy's chronology and with the carving of the colossal heads, there is a problem with claiming that pyramids were imported, since none had been built in Egypt for years. If instead the time of contact is said to be 700 B.C., in agreement with the renewal of pyramid building in Nubia, there is the problem of the colossal "portrait" heads' having been carved hundreds of years prior to the supposed contact. Van Sertima uses photographs to support racial stereotypes in the portrayal of sculptured heads and other types of figurative art, and his work substitutes assertion and scenarios for evidence.
For the most part, the Afrocentrists and the other cultural nationalists have heartily endorsed Van Sertima's thesis despite its obvious weaknesses in methodology and evidence. Although they have called for an Afrocentric history that is accurate and well-intentioned, they seem to be more concerned with the need to raise the "self-esteem" of African-Americans, regardless of the impact on other groups.  By endorsing Van Sertima's writings, the Afrocentrists and cultural nationalists have accepted a hegemonic and racialist view of pre-Columbian America that is completely lacking in historical accuracy. They have also accepted a theory and a methodological approach that grossly distort the historical record at the expense of Native Americans. Despite vehement protestations to the contrary, Van Sertima has, in effect, trampled on the self-respect or self-esteem of Native Americans by minimizing their role as actors in their own history, denigrating their cultures,  and usurping their contributions to the development of world civilizations.