Ivan Van Sertima
Sertima in 1995
|Born||26 January 1935|
Kitty Village, British Guiana
|Died||25 May 2009 (aged 74)|
Highland Park, New Jersey, United States
|Alma mater||University of London, Rutgers University|
|Known for||pre-Columbian contact between Africa and the Americas|
|Spouse(s)||Maria Nagy (m. 1964; divorced)|
Jacqueline L. Patten
He was best known for his Olmec alternative origin speculations, a brand of pre-Columbian contact theory, which he proposed in his book They Came Before Columbus (1976). While his Olmec theory has "spread widely in African American community, both lay and scholarly", it was mostly ignored in Mesoamericanist scholarship, and dismissed as Afrocentric pseudoarchaeology and pseudohistory to the effect of "robbing native American cultures".[n 1]
Van Sertima was born in Kitty Village, near Georgetown, in what was then the colony of British Guiana (present-day Guyana); he retained his British citizenship throughout his life. He completed primary and secondary school in Guyana, and started writing poetry. He attended the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London from 1959. In addition to his creative writing, Van Sertima completed his undergraduate studies in African languages and literature at SOAS in 1969, where he graduated with honours.
From 1957 to 1959, worked as a Press and Broadcasting Officer in the Guyana Information Services. During the 1960s, he worked for several years in Great Britain as a journalist, doing weekly broadcasts to the Caribbean and Africa. Van Sertima married Maria Nagy in 1964; they adopted two sons, Larry and Michael.
In doing field work in Africa, he compiled a dictionary of Swahili legal terms in 1967. In 1970 Van Sertima immigrated to the United States, where he entered Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for graduate work.
After divorcing his first wife, Sertima remarried in 1984, to Jacqueline L. Patten, who had two daughters.
He published his They Came Before Columbus in 1976, as a Rutgers graduate student. The book deals mostly with his arguments for an African origin of Mesoamerican culture in the Western Hemisphere. Published by Random House rather than an academic press, They Came Before Columbus was a best-seller and achieved widespread attention within the African-American community for his claims of prehistoric African contact and diffusion of culture in Central and South America. It was generally "ignored or dismissed" by academic experts at the time and strongly criticised in detail in an academic journal, Current Anthropology, in 1997.
Van Sertima completed his master's degree at Rutgers in 1977. He became Associate Professor of African Studies at Rutgers in the Department of Africana Studies in 1979. Also in 1979, Van Sertima founded the Journal of African Civilizations, which he exclusively edited and published for decades.
He published several annual compilations, volumes of the journal dealing with various topics of African history. His article "The Lost Sciences of Africa: An Overview" (1983) discusses early African advances in metallurgy, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, engineering, agriculture, navigation, medicine and writing. He posited that higher learning, in Africa as elsewhere, was the preserve of elites in the centres of civilisations, rendering them vulnerable in the event of the destruction of those centres and the loss of such knowledge. Van Sertima also discussed African scientific contributions in an essay for the volume African Renaissance, published in 1999 (he had first published the essay in 1983). This was a record of the conference held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 1998 on the theme of the African Renaissance.
On 7 July 1987, Van Sertima testified before a United States Congressional committee to oppose recognition of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas. He said, "You cannot really conceive of how insulting it is to Native Americans ... to be told they were 'discovered'."
They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America (1976)
In this book, Ivan Van Sertima explores his theory that Africans made landfall and had significant influence on the native peoples of Mesoamerica, primarily the Olmec civilization. Van Sertima accomplishes this through chapters relying heavily on dramatic storytelling. This technique, as well as the ambiguity of the evidence Van Sertima used, have led to the acceptance of his work as pseudoscience or pseudoarchaeology. This work was published by Random House and did not go through a peer review process.
Van Sertima reached larger audiences through chapters narrated by figures of the past, including Christopher Columbus and the Mali king Abu Bakr II. In doing this, primary source anecdotes are often the evidence cited by Van Sertima combined with inference and exaggeration, though he implies to his readers that the narrative is based in fact. In Chapter 5, called "Among the Quetzalcoatls", Van Sertima narrates the arrival of Abu Bakr II to an Aztec civilization in Mexico in 1311, describing the Mali king as "a true child of the sun burned dark by its rays" in direct and explicit comparison to the Aztec "sun god" Quetzalcoatl, as Van Sertima writes. This interaction is not rooted in historical evidence and Van Sertima does not offer a cited source to back up his narrative. This is one of many examples of Van Sertima's theories that Mesoamerican mythologies are based on Pre-Columbian African contact theories.
Between narrative chapters, Van Sertima develops his main claims about African contact with the Americas in an essay style and includes images of artifacts, which primarily consist of photographs of ceramic heads that Van Sertima says have African features. Van Sertima also includes photos of an African man and woman for comparison, but he does not include pictures of inhabitants of the area where the artifacts were found. Van Sertima focuses specifically on the Olmec colossal heads, saying that the characteristics of the stone faces are "indisputably" African, while Mesoamerican experts such as Richard Diehl disregards this claim, as the statues are stylized and generally accepted as representing native Mesoamericans.
Van Sertima argues that African contact likely happened more than once. In Chapter Four, "Africans Across the Sea", Van Sertima explores numerous ways that he claims Africans could have travelled by boat to South and Central America. Van Sertima writes about shipping technology, saying that even the most ancient of Egyptian ships were sturdy enough to cross the Atlantic on the currents that run from northwest Africa to the Americas.
A chapter is also devoted to the presence of bottle gourds originally from Africa found in ancient Mesoamerican graves. Experts have determined that the gourds floated across the Atlantic and washed ashore in the Americas to be adopted by Mesoamerican cultures. He later discusses carved pipes found in Mesoamerican archaeological sites, suggesting that the use of pipes for smoking must have been an inherited practice from African or Asian visitors.
Van Sertima does devote a considerable portion of the book to interaction of cultures within Africa as well, with Chapter 7 and 8, titled “Black Africa and Egypt” and “The Black Kings of the 25th Dynasty” in which he explores the West and Southern African man’s influence on the ancient Egyptian civilization. He devotes Chapter 8 to discussing the beneficial innovations and flourishing of culture under Nubian rulers in Egypt. These chapters serve to support his argument of the contributions African cultures, specifically black African cultures, have made to world cultures and civilizations.
Van Sertima states near the end of the book that all civilizations are capable of independent invention, and that he aims to place his claims on the spectrum between diffusionism and isolationism, or the idea that cultures separated geographically are capable of inventing similar things without interaction between the two. However, some of the biggest resting points of his theory attribute Mesoamerican pyramids, mummification, symbolism, mythology, calendar technology, and much of the art to African influence and guidance. Critics in anthropology and archaeology have stated that They Came Before Columbus portrays Native Mesoamerican peoples as inferior and incapable of developing highly sophisticated civilizations, cultures, and technologies without the influence of Africans arriving by boat as “gods” in their eyes, as Van Sertima puts it. The claims in this book are not generally accepted in the scientific fields of archaeology and anthropology.
Van Sertima's work on Olmec civilization has been criticised by Mesoamerican academics, who describe his claims to be ill-founded and false. Van Sertima's Journal of African Civilizations was not considered for inclusion in Journals of the Century. In 1997 academics in a Journal of Current Anthropology article criticised in detail many elements of They Came Before Columbus (1976). Except for a brief mention, the book had not previously been reviewed in an academic journal. The researchers wrote a systematic rebuttal of Van Sertima's claims, stating that Van Sertima's "proposal was without foundation" in claiming African diffusion as responsible for prehistoric Olmec culture (in present-day Mexico). They noted that no "genuine African artifact had been found in a controlled archaeological excavation in the New World." They noted that Olmec stone heads were carved hundreds of years prior to the claimed contact and only superficially appear to be African; the Nubians whom Van Sertima had claimed as their originators do not resemble these "portraits". They further noted that in the 1980s, Van Sertima had changed his timeline of African influence, suggesting that Africans made their way to the New World in the 10th century B.C., to account for more recent independent scholarship in the dating of Olmec culture.
They further called "fallacious" his claims that Africans had diffused the practices of pyramid building and mummification, and noted the independent rise of these in the Americas. Additionally, they wrote that Van Sertima "diminishe[d] the real achievements of Native American culture" by his claims of African origin for them.
Van Sertima wrote a response to be included in the article (as is standard academic practice) but withdrew it. The journal required that reprints must include the entire article and would have had to include the original authors' response (written but not published) to his response. Instead, Van Sertima replied to his critics in "his" journal volume published as Early America Revisited (1998).
In a New York Times 1977 review of Van Sertima's 1976 book They Came Before Columbus, the archaeologist Glyn Daniel labelled Van Sertima's work as "ignorant rubbish", and concluded that the works of Van Sertima, and Barry Fell, whom he was also reviewing, "give us badly argued theories based on fantasies". In response to Daniel's review Clarence Weiant, who had worked as an assistant archaeologist specialising in ceramics at Tres Zapotes and later pursued a career as a chiropractor, wrote a letter to the New York Times supporting Van Sertima's work. Weiant wrote: "Van Sertima's work is a summary of six or seven years of meticulous research based upon archaeology, egyptology, African history, oceanography, astronomy, botany, rare Arabic and Chinese manuscripts, the letters and journals of early American explorers, and the observations of physical anthropologists.... As one who has been immersed in Mexican archaeology for some forty years, and who participated in the excavation of the first giant heads, I must confess, I am thoroughly convinced of the soundness of Van Sertima's conclusions."[n 2]
In 1981 Dean R. Snow, a professor of anthropology, wrote that Van Sertima "uses the now familiar technique of stringing together bits of carefully selected evidence, each surgically removed from the context that would give it a rational explanation". Snow continued, "The findings of professional archaeologists and physical anthropologists are misrepresented so that they seem to support the [Van Sertima] hypothesis".
Death and legacy
Van Sertima retired in 2006. He died on 25 May 2009 aged 74. He was survived by his wife and four adult children. His widow, Jacqueline Van Sertima, said she would continue to publish the Journal of African Civilizations. She also planned to publish a book of his poetry.
- As author
- 1968, Caribbean Writers: Critical Essays, London & Port of Spain: New Beacon Books
- 1976, They Came Before Columbus, New York: Random House
- 1999, "The Lost Science of Africa: An Overview", in Malegapuru William Makgoba (ed.), African Renaissance, Sandton and Cape Town, South Africa: Mafube and Tafelberg
- As editor
- 1979–2005, The Journal of African Civilizations (anthologies published by Transaction Publishers of New Brunswick, New Jersey)
- 1983, Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern
- 1985, African Presence in Early Europe
- 1986, Great African Thinkers, Cheikh Anta Diop
- 1988, Great Black Leaders: Ancient and Modern
- 1988, Black Women in Antiquity
- 1988, Cheikh Anta Diop, New Brunswick, NJ: The Journal of African Civilizations, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1988
- 1988,Van Sertima before Congress: The Columbus Myth, transcript of a speech of 7 July 1987 before the US Congress Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission (Committee on Post Office and Civil Service; Subcommittee on Census and Population)
- 1992, The Golden Age of the Moor
- 1993, Egypt Revisited
- 1998, Early America Revisited
- As co-editor
- with Runoko Rashidi, African Presence in Early Asia, New Brunswick, NJ: The Journal of African Civilizations, 1985 (reprint 1995)
- "either completely ignored or generally dismissed by anthropologists, historians and other academic professionals." Haslip-Vierra, de Montellano and Barbour.
- Weiant, who had a PhD in archaeology, also wrote numerous articles on extrasensory perception and was an active member of the American Society for Psychical Research. In 1959 he presented the paper "Anthropology and Parapsychology" at an annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Mexico City. It was based on his 1939 discovery of the cache of figurines at Tres Zapotes through what he believed to be the clairvoyance of Emilio Tamago, a peasant worker.
- "Ivan van Sertima". Rutgers African-American Alumni Hall of Fame Inductees. 2004.
- Card, Jeb J.; Anderson, David S. (2016). Lost City, Found Pyramid: Understanding Alternative Archaeologies and Pseudoscientific Practices. University of Alabama Press. pp. 73, 75, 76, 79. ISBN 9780817319113. Retrieved 12 November 2019.
- Ivan Gladstone Van Sertima
- Fritze, Ronald (1994). "Goodbye Columbus? The Pseudohistory of Who Discovered America". Skeptic. 2 (4): 88–97. Retrieved 12 November 2019.
- Haslip-Viera, Gabriel; de Montellano, Bernard Ortiz; Barbour, Warren (June 1997). "Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertima's Afrocentricity and the Olmecs" (PDF). Current Anthropology. 38 (3): 419–441. doi:10.1086/204626. S2CID 162054657.
- Browne, Murphy. "Ivan Van Sertima's books great reading for Black History Month". Retrieved 6 June 2016.
- "Ivan Van Sertima (In Memoriam, 1935-2009)". Rutgers University. Retrieved 6 June 2016.
- "Guyanese Dr. Ivan Van Sertima passes at 74". Kaieteur News. 29 May 2009. Retrieved 6 June 2016.
- "Van Sertima, Giant Scholar, Dies at 74", Black Star News, 30 May 2009.
- Van Sertima, Ivan (1976). They Came Before Columbus. Random House. p. 125. ISBN 9781560007920.
- Reece, Maggie (14 January 2012), "Ivan Van-Sertima - Anthropologist, linguist, educator and author", Guyana Graphic.
- "Dr. Ivan Van Sertima". Journal of African Civilizations. Retrieved 6 June 2016.
- Van Sertima (1983). "The Lost Sciences of Africa: An Overview". Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, Journal of African Civilizations. 5 (1–2).
- Sirica, Jack (4 August 1987). "Native Opposition to a 1492 Party". Newsday.
- Van Sertima, Ivan (1976). They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America. Random House.
- Diehl, Richard A. (2004). The Olmecs: America's First Civilization. London, UK: Thames & Hudson. p. 112. ISBN 9780500021194.
- See Grove (1976) or Ortiz de Montellano (1997).
- Finnegan, Gregory A.; Ogburn, Joyce L.; Smith, J. Christina (2002). "Journals of the Century in Anthropology and Archaeology". In Stankus, Tony (ed.). Journals of the Century. New York: Haworth Press. pp. 141–50. ISBN 0789011336. OCLC 49403459.
- Ivan Van Sertima, Early America Revisited, Journal of African Civilizations, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1998, pp. 143–52.
- Dr. Clarence Weiant Letter to the New York Times, 1 May 1977.
- "Archaeologists & Scholars: Clarence Wolsey Weiant 1897 – 1986", Smithsonian Institution, 2011, accessed 12 January 2014.
- Dean R. Snow, "Martians & Vikings, Madoc & Runes: A seasoned campaigner’s look at the never-ending war between archaeological fact and archaeological fraud", American Heritage Magazine, October–November 1981, Vol. 32(6), accessed 21 January 2009.
- "Van Sertima Wins Prize for Book on Africa; Van Sertima Wins $7,500 Book Prize", New York Times, 8 March 1981, accessed 21 January 2009.
- "Historian Dr. Ivan Van Sertima Passes". Black Entertainment Television. 29 May 2009.
- KAREN KELLER, "Ivan Van Sertima, inspirational Afrocentric historian: Rutgers professor jolted academia with pre-Columbian assertions", New Jersey Star-Ledger (Archive), 5 June 2009, accessed 2 January 2011.
- "A Look Back at Slavery: Ivan Van Sertima On Cultural and Scientific Achievements in Africa", Democracy Now broadcast, 20 October 1999
- Journal of African Civilizations, Official Website
- Runoko Rashidi, "Ivan Van Sertima", The Global African Presence Website (Runoko Rashidid) from The Internet Archive
- "They came before Columbus - Dr Ivan Van Sertima". Lecture recorded in 1986 at Camden Town Hall, London.