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They Came Before Columbus...and what?!?

I read They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America by Ivan Van Sertima. I wasn’t halfway through this book and I was thoroughly offended, but I finished it just to hear their point of view.

I don’t buy it.

The belief that Africans were in the Americas before the Europeans were makes sense to me. There is plenty of proof of intercontinental contact world wide. Even evolution depends on intercontinental travel, I don’t see why it would just stop once the lands were populated. However, the offense lies in the implication that the indigenous people of the Americas were empty-headed morons just waiting, with open arms, for someone to come and guide them to civilization. As much as Van Sertima states that he is not seeking to imply this, his claims that the advances in agriculture, textiles, architecture, ancient academics and most all things upon which civilization is based upon is thanks to the African guidance. He even correlates the Africans arrival at the same time the Olmec civilization was booming!

One of the points Van Sertima makes, that I found intriguing for a minute was the megalithic Olmec heads. These huge carved heads have thick lips and flat noses and he places these images side by side with pictures of West African people who have similar features. He goes as far as to suggest that these carved images were possibly made to glorify these black leaders who have taught them so much! (argh!) What I found confusing was that although his comparison was of West African features, these black leaders that were supposed to have been canonized by a grateful indigenous population supposedly came from East Africa. The physical features of East African people are very different from those of West Africa, and nothing like the Olmec heads.

And apparently Van Sertima never considered that Mongolian features include thick lips and flat noses, too.

From a Native perspective, this book is the same garbage that the Europeans have been dishing out since they got here. Not once does the author consider the possibility that maybe the indigenous folks from over here went to Africa to school them, instead. I mean, considering the world’s oldest mummy is Chinchorro, from Chile, and the mummification processes are similar- including the removal of the internal organs and the placing of a mask over the face- the thought that this technology came from Egypt to the Americas doesn’t make sense. The oldest known Egyptian mummy was dated around 3500 B.C. while the Chinchorro mummy was dated at 6000 B.C. Do the math!

It is also interesting to note that although the Mayan pyramids are younger than those in Egypt, there have been pyramids found under Japanese waters that date 5000 years (at least) earlier than the oldest Egyptian pyramid, the Saqqara. This makes one wonder about who went where, especially since genetics are now showing that the Native American came from Asia to the American continent- maybe some just continued the journey all the way to Africa and taught them how to make pyramids also. And what of the megalithic Bolivian structures of Pumapunku and Teotihuacan, that are estimated to be 17,000 years old, yet their design makes the Saqqara look like child’s play! These ruins baffle scientists not only because the blocks used to build it weighed in at over 100 tons a piece; the cuts and fittings between them are so precise that their very creation is a mystery. And the materials the blocks are made of, dolomite, can only be cut by diamond tipped cutting tools!

The fact that there are pyramids all over the world is used by afrocentrists to prove that the technology was introduced by Black people. Yet this “evidence” is also used by those who say that extraterrestrials were the creators of these pyramids, because human beings- particularly ancient, indigenous human beings, could not have figured out how to make these huge structures all on their own. Especially when modern architects say they can’t make them with the tools available at that time themselves!

Just as it’s not cool to say that Africans were not intelligent enough to build the pyramids, it’s not cool to attempt to elevate your ethnic group by disparaging another. There is no need to deny the advances that belong to Black people; I can drive my automatic transmission car, in air conditioning while eating a peanut butter sandwich thanks to the inventions of Black people! But there is also no need to take away from the advances of the Native American Indian people to pad Black history. It’s just as debasing as the Eurocentric view is, and just as sadly desperate.

Give me a break.

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Comment by Maximilian Forte on June 14, 2009 at 2:24am
This is a very rich discussion, which provoked a tangentially related thought: blog posts in this network, which is private, get far more commentary than similar posts on publicly accessible blogs outside the network. What that means, I don't know, I just think it's interesting even if right off topic.
Comment by Anita Pagan on June 11, 2009 at 12:30pm
Carmen, I am finding the additional information you are providing quite interesting and I'm enjoying the research I am encouraged to do as well. Thanks! However, I must say that the additional information is just not helping Ivan's case.

Van Sertima's response quoted earlier is on page 139 of his book Early America Revisited and he cites the book Mummies, Diseases and Ancient Cultures as his source of information on the mummy's age, "7,438 BC" as per his quote, right?

I found the book he refers to and on page 281 it says the following:

"The eastern side of the excavation revealed a clear stratification caused by alternating layers of coals, ashes and fibrous matter. Under the lowest layer of coals, the sandstone floor showed an intentional circular excavation 25 cm in diameter but only 3 cm deep. Here, under a layer of randomly distributed vegetable fibers, the mummy of a child was found (Fig 12.13), almost completely wrapped in an envelope of animal skin and bearing a necklace of little rings made from the shells of ostrich eggs. (Arkell et al. 1961)

Dating by the radiocarbon method was carried out by Professor E. Tongiorgi at the University of Pisa using two different types of sample: the lowest coal layer of the deposit and the envelope of animal skin. The first sample was 7438+/-220 years old, and the second 5405+/-180 years old."

Now let's compare the information available:

As per Ivan's own source of information, the book Mummies, Diseases and Ancient Culture says that there were two samples used: the coal surrounding the mummy, which was dated at 7,428 years of age (give or take 220 years) and the animal skin the child's body was wrapped in for burial, which dated 5,405 years old give or take 180 years.

Revisiting Ivan's quote, he says: "...but the infant mummy of Uan Muhuggiag is dated 7,438 BC plus or minus 220".

Right off the bat I can see that he's using the date of the coal surrounding the mummy and not the date of the skin the kid was wrapped in which is a better marker of the mummy's age, since we know he was buried in it. There is a 2,033 year difference between the animal skin the child wore and the dirt surrounding him.

Ok, well everyone makes mistakes... it's to be expected, being human and all... And the skin may have been placed on the kid 2000 years after burial or something, so maybe it doesn't count.

However, we also find that, as per the same reference, Professor Tongiori dated the coal at 7,438 years of age and not 7,438 BC as Ivan claims. That's a 2,000 year technicality. When something is dated 11 years of age, it's just that, 11 years old. My nephew is 11 years old. Something dated 11 BC is an antique.

Now looking at the information at hand, the animal skin was dated 5,405 years old so it should be 3,405 BC. And if we use the date of the coal, it would be 5,438 BC. With the Chinchorro mummies clocking in at 6000BC, they are still the oldest mummies on the planet.

Now, because I am using Van Sertima's own evidence to dispute his claims, I do hope this fills your requirements of a valid rebuttal. Please do keep in mind that you always have a choice to discontinue participating in this discussion if impatience or frustration are making you uncomfortable. These topics are highly important to our identity as Indigenous people and we need to be able to disassociate ourselves enough from our feelings so as to examine the evidence as thoroughly an as clearly as possible so we can come to our truth.
Comment by carmen mendez on June 10, 2009 at 5:19pm
Obviously there is a need to continue to share Van Sertima's rebuttal as he continues to be dragged through the mud and called a psuedo-scientist. Since you raised the Chinchorro mummy, I agree let's talk facts, not emotions.

LIE ELEVEN: The Oldest Mummies in the world are associated with the Chinchorro culture of Chile (Arriazza 1995)

Truth: The oldest mummy so far found is an infant mummy buried in Nubia. The Chinchorro mummy is dated 5,860 BC plus or minus 180 (Allison 1985) but the infant mummy of Uan Muhuggiag is dated 7,438 BC plus or minus 220 (Professor E tongiori of University of Pisa Carbon 14 assays)....

I do not see that Van Sertima is using a MO of using a truth to hide a bunch of lies underneath it. This is research done by others, Van Sertima is not a scientist, he takes the facts uncovered by science and interprets and puts them into reference in terms of history, anthropology, etc. Since he is not a scientist he is not a psuedo scientist, nor is he using psuedoscience to make his points.

The claim that he never updated his work with new evidence as it became available is ridiculous. He did, frequently. His book EARLY AMERICA REVISITED is just that. He includes new evidence and replies to the critics, and the new evidence adds weight to his position. It is far more evidence than I have the time or patience to relay here.

Van Sertima and his colleagues have done very valid and greatly enlightening work regarding the genius of Africa. There is no need to feel threatened by this and no need to make it an "us against them" thing. The glorification of the African is not a deglorification of the Indigenous American. There was obviously very high level exchange of knowledge and wisdom between the two continents, as well as exchange of architectural techniques and mumification techniques as well as much more. Africa is all of our "Motherland" and that is a beautiful thing, not a thing to fight about. So what if Africans brought over the technique to build pyramids or to make mummies, the Indigneous people here were receptive to that, embraced that and took it to a whole new level. The ones who could feel upset by Van Sertima's work because it de-glorifies them is the europeans. It shows how the African and Indigenous People were far, far advanced from european civilization.

These are some of the reasons I find this discussion to be a little frustrating. I am here presenting Van Sertima's side because he was being labeled as a psuedo-scientist (a serious accusation). But we are not having a real debate because the evidence is not being put on the table. I attempted to put Van Sertimas evidence in part on the table, but it is only being replied to by vague rebuttals that Afrocentrists pass off myths as history and that the Chinchorro mummy is older than the African ones (which it is not). Then Van Sertima is accused of not updating evidence. Well the Chinchorro mummy date was not updated in this discussion, so who is not updating evidence?

Nanu, I am sorry but I do not find your analysis of the Olmec heads having Indigenous features not African features to be very convincing and I am not reassured by your statement that maybe Columbus came across people who painted themselves black or just saw everyone but white people as black. Columbus sure as heck knew the difference between Africans and Indigneous he was up and down the African coasts in his earlier days.

Plus, atlantic ocean currents off the coast of Africa will bring anyone on a boat to the Caribbean. Columbus was not the first, but he was the ugliest. The Caribbean has always been a melting pot.

Comment by Miguel Sague Jr on June 10, 2009 at 9:46am
Jan Jan Katu
Comment by Anita Pagan on June 10, 2009 at 12:54am
Tau folks!

Thank you all for adding your thoughts and opinions. I appreciate your participation and more, your candor in sharing. I’m aware that this can be a touchy subject for some of us and as mentioned, this kind of conversation can degenerate into a nasty, unfriendly give and take. I believe we are all adults and can recognize innuendo when we see it. I would hope we re-read what we’ve written before posting it and consider our own feelings if we were to receive what we’re about to send.

Having said that, I would like to share that the purpose of my post was to present my own personal opinion and feelings on the idea of an African origin/foundation for Meso-american civilization, a theory I was wide open to accepting and looked into willingly. At this time I am leaning heavily towards the theory being baloney, but I am always open to new views and perspectives and am willing to discuss points thoughtfully and respectfully.

Carmen, I do not follow Van Sertima nor was I aware of his recent death (May 2009). However, at the risk of sounding insensitive, I will say that thousands of people die on a daily basis and their death doesn’t make the beliefs they espouse any more convincing than when they lived, nor does it legitimize their opinions. This way of thinking is the basis of many, if not all, of our mayor world religions, ennit? The elevation of opinion to unquestionable doctrine, to be accepted on faith and scrutinized only at the peril of being labeled “blasphemous”, or in this case “disrespectful” or “racist”, is incredibly limiting, to say the least. Any belief system, group or organization that demands blind devotion and unquestioned obedience is suspect in my book.

Thinking is a verb and it’s an action that can only be done when comparing points, as we are doing here. Personally, it’s not in me to internalize spoon fed information and accept what’s shared only on the basis of the speaker’s credentials, passion or conviction. Like Iraoabo mentioned, there is much to be said for critical thinking. Unfortunately, the skills of critical thinking are not something taught in schools so folks today are mostly trained to be good followers. This is convenient for the government, corporations, pseudo-scientists and the like since, as long as things sound good to the demographic in question, they have a source of undiscriminating support. In the meanwhile, half truths, the lack of complete information and questionable materials leave people without the opportunity to come to their own conclusions and possibly living a lie. Consider that the Taino would still be extinct if it weren’t for the skills of critical thinking and questioning the status quo.

By the same token, regardless of empirical evidence, we can always come to different conclusions. This is seen in arguments between friends and lovers, eyewitness accounts and even in members of the same family recalling their experiences; quite often they will have different tales to tell on the same situations.

So, Carmen, while I will defend your right to agree with Van Sertima’s angle and recognize your opinion of him as a bringer of wisdom, I disagree with you on these views and I expect that the respect offered is reciprocated. I would also, respectfully suggest you re-read my post and see that while I am arguing Van Sertima’s opinions and question his “research”, I am not denigrating the man himself. His opinions are open to criticism- dead or alive.

As for his research, I read the response to his critics with interest. (Thank you for posting these, Carmen.) These comments led me to further research and I would like to share my thoughts on some of the points brought up.

Point 1~ “I never said that Africans created or founded American civilization.”

In my essay I consider this and point out as much in the third paragraph: “As much as Van Sertima states that he is not seeking to imply this, his claims that the advances in agriculture, textiles, architecture, ancient academics and most all things upon which civilization is based upon is thanks to the African guidance.”

The scope of influences which he ascribes to Africans is incredibly immense when you consider the amount of people affected by this supposed influence; a glass of ink with 10 drops of water is not the same as a glass of water with 10 drops of ink. With all the advances he credits to African voyagers, he may as well just say that Native American civilization is based on African teachings. His argument sounds a lot like Clinton denying having had sexual relations with Lewinski but then admitting to having done everything else, you have the denial on one hand and the implication on the other. I would add that if Van Sertima’s quote above is correct then why would he suggest the colossal heads were built in gratitude to honor African leaders?

Makes me wonder why he didn’t consider the Easter Island heads to be honoring Africans as well…

Point 2~ Short, flat noses vs long, narrow noses

I think this is a moot point because when it comes down to it, mongolian and native american features also include these kinds of noses… Might as well be looking for 10 fingers and 10 toes.

Point 4 & 5~ Back to the Olmec heads… and some “research”. “The many traits analyzed in these Olmec sites indicated individuals with Negroid traits predominating but with an admixture of other racial traits.”

The fact that these images look native is undeniable, although it is also true that they could look African as well. My point is that the same features that are pointed out as negroid, are also seen in the mongoloid and the indigenous american races. I see this argument as being one of those optical illusions that depend on your perspective. Because they are in the Americas, and because these heads have features that are found in the indigenous american and mongolian races that are not found in the negroid, it makes more sense to say the features are Native American and the possibility of them being African portraits just doesn’t hold water. There is also the question of Wiereciski’s study which I will address later.

Then there are the matter of the braids… braids have been found on Chinchorro mummies, mummies that are older than Egyptian mummies by a couple of thousands of years, so the weaving of hair as well as the process of mummification, was not unknown in the Americas and cannot be ascribed to African influence.

As for the materials used in the making of “african” figurines, as an artist myself I will admit that, at times, the color of the materials used may represent the color of the object being made. However, this is not always the case; there is always room for “creative license”, the beauty of the material itself may have been the point in the creation of the piece, paint does come off with time and when it comes down to it, the artist is not here for an interview. Are we to think that Spanish women actually looked like Picasos’ depictions? Assumptions are dangerous things and not to be confused with truth… possibility doesn’t imply manifestation.

Point 6~ As for the research Van Sertima used,the fact that he refused to revisit his theory when updated materials were available to him is questionable. All serious scholars and scientists update their information when new venues appear, why wouldn’t he? He had the time and opportunity.

The “evidence” used in his 12 categories are all questionable: the “black” people the conquerors saw could very well have been indigenous folks who dyed their skins- they still do to this day! One may also consider that the Spanish were racist themselves, were in the final throws of an 800 year war (La Reconquista), and considered anyone not like them “black”, “morenos” or “moros”. The botanical information is invalid by Van Sertima’s own words: “Stephens spoke in two tongues”; if Stephens spoke with a forked tongue, how is his information reliable? And if the bottle gourds and cotton had nothing to do with african travelers, then why add irrelevant information as supportive evidence of his theory? That’s the same thing he did with the Mayan codexes and it makes no sense! The skeletal measurements used by Wiercinski never considered the indigenous american as a separate people- measurements were compared with Black, White and Yellow races represented by skulls from Poland, Uganda and Mongolia. How can you make a serious scientific study without including the continents of the Americas? Why no measurements of another Indigenous American skull? This exclusion reminds me, again, of the way the Spanish committed paper genocide and made the Taino “extinct”.

By the way, Miguel, thanks so much for your thorough presentation regarding the Mayan books. Your analysis seems consistent with what I observed as Van Sertima’s MO- present one truth and then slide your supportive evidence under the weight of that truth and not it’s own.

If we are to examine all sides of the issue with an open mind, these points must be taken into consideration and not just swept under the rug as normal mistakes and inconsistencies that are to be expected. I will agree that scholars, scientists and -ologists are all human, a condition they cannot possibly overcome, and a margin of error is to be considered. That having been said, there is a lot that can be done to make up for this margin of error: revising the issue when new scientific venues and materials are available, serious examination of the points one’s critics bring up as opposed to taking a defensive stance, revisiting one’s own thoughts and opinions with the understanding that mistakes are always possible and having the guts to own up to it if the facts lead to such an admission… in other words, using the skills of critical thinking. Yes, mistakes are to be expected but to make note of this and not take it into consideration is a mark of dogmatic belief, not scholarly truth.

Since speculation and possibility is not proof, to make statements of this nature without conclusive evidence and insisting upon it’s veracity while exhibiting so many inconsistencies is irresponsible, incredibly arrogant and monumentally destructive on the self esteem of both the Indigenous American and African peoples. The bolstering of the African at the expense of the Native, in my opinion, is recycled racism. It still leaves the Indigenous American as an ignorant needing to be educated on civilized society.

In the end, beliefs are as varied as people are and when it comes down to it, we will each choose what we want to believe in regardless of the facts, or lack thereof, surrounding our beliefs. I will say, though, I wouldn’t let a surgeon with as many inconsistencies and mistakes as Van Sertima has in his arguments, operate on me…lol! As human as he may be, I require more attention to detail and consistency, and after this latest research I must say that I am moving further away from accepting these ideas.
Comment by Miguel Sague Jr on June 7, 2009 at 3:12pm
Tau Carmen
I am very glad that I was able to help you find a new venue on which you could enjoy the words of this writer that you admire so much. As for your response to my statement regardng his use of the Popol Vuh and the Titulo Coyoi as part of his evidence, I feel that my point has been made and that this point takes into account an open mind, which I have.

For a great deal of my life I have been contending with the problem of authors becoming popular by writing books that take the credit away from a variety of Native and Indigenous people of every continent and giving it to their ethnic group of choice or to some extra-terrestial. You mention that I exppress myself passionately. I see few other topics that deserve passion as much as this. And so I stand guilty as charged, passionate, and proud of it. When it comes to the representation of my people's history I passionately defend the integrity of the accomplishments of the ethnic groups with whom I identify. I passionately defend truth, accuracy and scientific honesty.
Taino Ti
Comment by carmen mendez on June 6, 2009 at 11:48pm
I have begun to listen to this wonderful lecture by Dr. Van Sertima. I am already very impressed by it. I did get to the part about the popol vuh and I do not agree that this is "an important part of his supporting argument". He mentions it when speaking of the volumes of texts and books that were destroyed by europeans in the Americas and in Africa. I do not agree that he is being dishonest or that this shows that he is not a good scholar. I really feel we need to show him more respect than is being shown. The popol vuh is being used as an example of the limited written information that is still in existence about pre-columbian times in the Americas.

But thank you for sharing the lecture. I am enjoying hearing from this wonderful Ancestor.

Comment by carmen mendez on June 6, 2009 at 11:30pm
I dont think my take is all that important. I do think that we should all be able to hear all sides to the issue, approach with an open mind if we are open minded or a close mind if we are closed minded. All I say is lets put all the evidence on the table not just one side.

All this just to say, I respect and honor the memory of Dr. Van Sertima, inconsistencies are something we all are guilty of from time to time and mistakes are something we are also all guilty of from time to time, we all get our facts "backwards" at some point. I am aware that the popol vuh is written post invasion although is seems that much of it is information from pre-invasion. Now I am even more aware of this through your passionate stance on this issue. I respect that you have your own opinion, I also respect that I have my own mind and ability to think.

I do not agree that we can dismiss Van Sertima though your one example of an apparently erroneous statement regarding the date of the popol vuh. I have not yet checked out the link to this lecture but I will.

Comment by Miguel Sague Jr on June 6, 2009 at 8:35pm
First of all, the issue of an archeologist's opinion of the Taino resurgence movement is irrelevant to our discussion. There is a large percentage of legitimate scholars who have problems with our Resurgence. That does not make them any less competent as archeologists or anthropologists, that just makes them closed-minded in regards to the ability of a people to rebound from near ethnic elimination. Unfortunately that is an affliction of many scholars but it does not diminish their ability to accurately carry out the main duties of their profession.

My post serves as a response to your question: "I would like to know who is it that debunked the information on Olmec heads? What scholars are they or leaders are they and do they have published works or other works available concerning this?" Once I respond to your question, callng their legitimacy into question due to their opinion of the Taino resurgence is, as I said, irrelevant.

In his response to his critics that you have posted Dr. Van Sertima brought up many different points that frankly can be easily refuted but that is not my intention here because it would simply take too much time to go one by one and most of them are inexact issues that can be interpreted and re-interpreted so as to make the discussion never-ending. In my earlier example I presented an airtight inescapable instance of inaccuracy that is impossible to refute. There are many others but some of them, as I just noted, are quite a bit more slippery (such as the issue of flat versus aquiline noses).

The issue of the Popol Vuh clearly illustrates the way in which Dr. Van Sertima used legitimate archeological and ethnological material in illegitimate ways. My request to you is to kindly addess this particular issue. It is quite cut-and dried, black and white... Either the Popol Vuh or the Titulo Coyoi are one of the three ancient books that escaped Spanish destruction and now stand as evidence supporting Dr. Sertima's argument or they are not. This issue is actually very simple and does not allow slippery arguments and obfuscations. It is a yes-or-no answer.

Be aware that if Dr. Van Sertima was innaccurate on this issue of the ancient texts which he put so much stress on in his speech and which form an important part of his supporting argument, then it is fair to conclude that he did much the same thing with other supporting evidence.

If the Popol Vuh is not one of those three books then Dr. Van Sertima was simply not telling the truth. I already know what the answer to this question is because I have been studying the Popol Vuh for over three decades. I just want to hear what your take is on this inconsistancy.
Taino Ti
Comment by carmen mendez on June 6, 2009 at 3:31pm
On another note, are you aware that Haslip Viera has said some very uncomplimentary things about us Taino today? I do not think he is a source to immediately trust.

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