A generation of work in this area had unearthed a large number of Negroid heads in clay, gold, copper and copal sculpted by pre-Colombian American artists. … Accidental stylazation could not account for the individuality and racial particulars of these heads. Their Negro-ness could not be explained away nor, in most cases, their African cultural origin. Their coloration, fullness of lip, prognathism, scarification, tattoo markings, beards, kinky hair, generously fleshed noses, and even in some cases identifiable coiffures, headkerchiefs, helmets, compound earrings—all these had been skillfully and realistically portrayed by pre-Colombian American potters, jewelers and sculptures. (Van Sertima, 1972: xiv; They Came Before Colombus)
Ivan Van Sertima is a fringe Afrocentric theorist (they all are), who argued that there was an African presence in America, long before Colombus set shore in the Bahamas in 1492. This view, of course, is seen as highly fringe in the field of anthropology. On the cover of the book, John A. Williams writes that Van Sertima has “demonstrated that there is far more to black history than the slave trade.” Quite obviously, there is more to black history than the slave trade, but Van Sertima’s storytelling is not it. This article will refute Van Sertima’s claim that the Olmec heads were of Negroid origin—or were sculpted to show the appearance of Negroids—and his other claim that Mali seafarers reached the Americans some 200-odd years before Colombus.
Van Sertima spent his career pushing pseudoscience of this type, even editing and publishing most of his own work in his own edited journals (because other journals would not accept his fringe work). It has come to my attention that Van Sertima’s (1972) book They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America (TCBC) will soon be used in certain syllabi.
Back in December of 2015, I published an article refuting the notion that the Olmecs—and other pre-Colombian civilizations—were started by Negroid peoples. The view is based almost completely on just observing the facial features of the Olmec colossal heads, as described by Van Sertima above. There are, of course, numerous problems with these claims: most importantly, the “evidence” that Van Sertima provides in his book to “prove” an ancient African presence in America is highly lacking.
Van Sertima believed that Mali seafarers sailed across the Atlantic and landed in Mesoamerica. In TCBC, Van Sertima (1972: 39) reconstructed “an event in the medieval empire of Mali, based on Arab historical and travel documents and the oral tradition of the Mali griots.” Chapters 3 and 4 do, indeed, read like some sort of fantastical tale, so I am glad that Van Sertima left the note—but it is quite clear that he is doing nothing but storytelling. Van Sertima claims that the Mixtecs and Aztecs were influenced by Bakari II. All of these claims are incredible—which means that they deserve incredible evidence in order to verify them. Alas, none exist.
Van Sertima claimed that Bakari II had a fleet of ships and set off from the west coast of Africa across the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico and influenced the Vera Cruz region of what is now modern-day Mexico. However, anthropologists and archaeologists who specialized in Mesoamerican history, rightly, reject Van Sertima’s storytelling.
So, Van Sertima became convinced due to the writings of linguists and anthropologists, that there was an ancient, as-of-yet-looked-into connection between ancient Africa and Mesoamerica. So, Van Sertima had his conclusion in mind first, and looked for evidence for it—meaning he was telling just-so stories. There is a lack of evidence for his claims and, the evidence he claims lends credence to his outlandish claims falls short since we know the origins of what convinced him that there was an ancient African presence in Mesoamerica.
Van Sertima’s main evidence for his claims regarding a pre-Colombian contact between ancient Africans (Nubians) and Olmecs rests on the supposed similarities between Negroid facial features and the colossal Olmec heads. For example, Van Sertima’s claims that the Olmec heads are Negroid due to the broad flat noses runs into a major problem: nose shape is dictated by climate; the climate of Mesoamerica and Africa is similar; the function of nose shape is to moisten air before it goes into the lungs; therefore, since climate is dictated by nose shape and the climate of Mesoamerica and Africa is similar, then they have similar-shaped noses due to the climate they lived in. It’s really that easy to explain the so-called similar appearances in nose shape between the Olmec heads and African noses. The Olmec heads, quite obviously, represent the peoples living in lowland Mexico—not Nubians who supposedly sailed across the Atlantic and made contact with pre-Colombian civilizations (Viera, de Montellano, and Barbour, 1997).
Furthermore, Van Sertima, quite wildly, claims that since the Olmec heads were black then they must have represented African people. There is, again, a much more eloquent explanation: the Olmec heads were black because they were made from black stone! The Olmec associated volcanic rocks and the like with symbolic importance, and so, they carved their sculptures out of them due to this. However, Afrocentrists then make the claim that the natives of Mesoamerica regarded them as gods, and so they sculpted these statues in order to honor them (sounds like Ancient Aliens, to me).
Van Sertima also makes it appear that after the Nubians made contact with the Olmecs, that their civilization almost instantaneously appeared. However, archaeological work has indicated that the foundations of Olmec culture—and indeed all of Mesoamerican culture—had its beginnings in Mesoamerica long before the Olmec appeared on the scence.
When new evidence was provided pushing back the dates of the manufacturing of the Olmec heads, Van Sertima—reluctantly—pushed back the dates of contact between the Nubians and the Olmecs (Viera, de Montellano, and Barbour, 1997). How convenient. When evidence came out refuting Van Sertima’s storytelling, he concocted an ad hoc hypothesis to save his hypothesis from immunization.
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. (Viera, de Montellano, and Barbour, 1997: 431)
In conclusion, Van Sertima misrepresents archaeological, linguistic, botanical etc evidence for his ridiculous claims that Africans settled—and created or influenced—Mesoamerican civilizations. Note how these claims are eerily similar to claims of ‘white gods’ that, for example, the Aztecs and Maya speak of. Isn’t it weird how Van Sertima and other Afrocentrists use the same type of tactics as pseudoscientists (i.e., ad hoc hypothesizing)? No, since they are only telling just-so stories. If anything, the only thing Van Sertima’s book is good for is a good laugh into the delusions of someone with the conclusion in mind, working backward to prove it (meaning, he’s using the type of reverse engineering that EPists use).