Review of They Came Before Columbus by Dr. Ivan Van Sertima

They Came Before Columbus Cover Art, Audio

Why I Chose this Book

I am of what you would call, “recent African ancestry.” I also work with many foreign-born Chinese people. Sometimes the conversation will somehow, turn into a history lesson about China. I may hear about anything from the cultural revolution, to ancient Chinese dynasties, to Genghis Kan. Occasionally, I’ve been asked by my colleagues some form of the question, “Where are you from?”

“Here. “

“No, like where is your family from? What country did your, say, grandfather or great-grandfather or whatever come from?”

I really have no idea. My best guess would be from somewhere(s) in west and/or maybe central Africa. They are familiar with American history, right?

When I thought about it more, I realized that in high school and probably prior I had learned about American History, Western European History, the dynasties of China and Egypt, but what about where my people were likely from? What did I know or was taught? The story of Hannibal of Carthage always stuck with me since high school, though his story was told probably because of its relation to European history. Technically, Carthage was a part of Northern Africa too. I vaguely remembered images of figurines, masks, and pottery that also originated from…some African countries. There was Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid in South Africa. Evidence indicates that humans originated in Africa. This was all that I could recall being formally taught. I’m pretty sure I had taken a World History course before. Did we learn anything in there that I had simply forgotten? Any other significant information about the history of my people tended to start with, we were slaves. We were taken from Africa, but who were we before slavery? What did we do? What did we believe in? Since my earlier days of schooling, I have informally encountered bits and pieces of information such as the story of Mansa Musa, the richest man in history, but not much else. If I didn’t look for it myself I was probably wasn’t going to learn much more.  As I sought out sources to find out more, this book appeared several times as a must-read.

They Came Before Columbus

They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America originally published in 1976 was written by professor Dr. Ivan Van Sertima. In this book, the author presents evidence and arguments for the existence of black Africans in America before the arrival of Columbus and the beginning of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1492. Van Sertima uses written, archaeological, and cultural evidence to support his thesis. In doing so, he also attempts to combat the perceived inferiority of black Africans due to their perceived lack of technological or cultural advancements prior to colonialism in Africa.

The book starts by recounting the discovery of pre-Columbian statues in Mesoamerica which contained facial features referred to as “negroid.” Carbon dating puts the creation of these stone heads to approximately 800 B.C.  Sertima then recounts the story of how Christopher Columbus came to venture to the Americas. Reportedly, from American historian and linguist Leo Weiner of Harvard University’s book Africa and the Discovery of America (I’ll have to add that one to the list too) in one of Columbus’s journals there is an account of a statement by the Native Americans saying that they had encountered black people prior to the arrival of Columbus.

“..and he [Columbus] wanted to find out what the Indians of Hispanola had told him, that there had come to it from the south and southeast Negro people, who brought those spear points made of a metal which they call guanin” –Raccolta, Parte 1, Vol. 1

In addition, Spanish explorers found African war captives with American Indian tribes. Sailing, especially such great distances, was not an achievement that was typically attributed to Africans of that time, but it would have been necessary to reach the Americas. Van Sertima tells of the emergence of the Mali kingdom and its seafaring ventures, thus providing evidence for sailing capabilities of West Africans. Also, some other West African countries had been known to both fish by boat and sail. In addition, there are stories of Egyptian mariners. Ocean currents such as the Guinea and Canary currents were likely to have aided Africans sailing to America as well. In 1455 the Portuguese sailor Alvise da Cadamostoin encountered West African riverboats in the Gambian river.

“…suddenly this stream widened, and they saw in the distance what looked at first like a drifting island of black men…’We estimated on examination that there might be about one hundred and fifty at the most; they appeared very well-built, exceedingly black, and all clothed in white cotton shirts’”

Ancient Egypt is regarded as one of the greatest earliest civilizations that has captured the attention and imagination of historians and laypeople alike for years. Though Egypt is located in Africa, typically little of its success has been attributed to black people, but rather to those who migrated from the Middle East. Van Sertima asserts that this idea is false and explains how this belief developed. At the time that the dominant narrative of the origins of ancient Egyptian civilization emerged, the use of African slaves was well into effect. To assuage the Christian conscience for the enslavement of a people, one could not believe that black people were intelligent enough and capable of such feats as the ancient Egyptians. Thus, historians of the time removed, ignored, or minimized any evidence of black contributions to ancient Egyptian civilization. Van Sertima states that even the Greek historian Herodotus had an account of black Egyptian people. Despite this, there were however, agreed upon black kings of the 25th dynasty such as Taharqa.

“This finding flatly contradicted the claim of the historian Herodotus that the Egyptians, compared to the Greeks and other European Caucasoids, were for the most part ‘a black-skinned and wooly-haired’ people”

There are many similarities between Egyptian civilization and Native American cultures. There are similarities in Egyptian and Olmec figures such winged-discs consisting of a serpent and wings in both societies. These discs were placed above entrances of inner chambers of temples in Egypt and above temple door lintels in pre-Columbian America. There are Egyptian-like pyramids in the Americas and mummified persons similar to those in Egypt. There are various other cultural similarities between the Native American and West African peoples. There are similarities between the Mandingo god the Dasiri of the Bambara and the god Quetzalcoatl of the Olmecs. Both the Mandingo people of Africa and the Quetzalcoatl people of the Americas undergo a ritual of “self-flagellating dances (dances of penance and chastisement)” in which the dancers may wrap themselves in thorns or lash themselves with thorns. The sickle cell trait, an adaptation to ward off malaria found mostly in people from West Africa, was also discovered in the secluded Mayan tribe, the Lancodon Indians by Dr. Alfonso de Garay, Director of the Genetic Program of the National Commission for Nuclear Energy in Mexico.

“Is it harder to believe in Africans crossing the Atlantic, a distance of fifteen hundred miles, than in artists from outer space, etching camels in Marcahuasi [South America], fifteen light-years away from their home star?”

There is evidence of African cotton seeds in America. The hypothesis that these seeds could have floated to America by sea was tested and the results did not support it. It was also concluded that it was not likely that these seeds were carried by birds. Several words are also similar with similar meanings such as nama-tigi or ama-tigi from the Bambara of the Mandingos and aman-teca from the Nahuatl of Mexico, both of which refer to “master” or “chief” or “headman.” Van Sertima presents an argument for the transformation of the word banana with African origins. The word for tobacco also has African roots as well as the refinement of the practice of oral pipe smoking. Maize has African origins. Oral traditions of Native Americans, according to reported Mexican authority, Nicholas Leon, include the belief that “the oldest inhabitants of Mexico were Negroes” among other stories. Also according to Polish craniologist Wiercinsky 13.5% of skeletons in a pre-classic Olmec cemetery of Tlatilco were negroid which decreased in percentage over time, indicating intermixture with the native population over time.

Conclusion

This book provides numerous arguments for the existence of black Africans in America before the start of the Atlantic Slave Trade. This book is dense with presented evidence and deserves serious study. If each piece of evidence and argument was listed, the list would be as long as the index.

One of the most striking pieces of evidence is the “negroid” statues, statues of peoples with thick lips and wide noses. The author gives pictures of examples of negroid statues in pre-Columbian America, often with black people in comparison. Though these features may be common among black people of African Ancestry, one cannot exclude that these features also exist to some degree in Native Americans. Also, Van Sertima’s case could be strengthened if statues and art known to intended to depict Native Americans were also shown in comparison. If similar stones whose purpose were known to be to depict Native Americans did not also have these facial features, then this could argue against the possibility that the features of the statues were simply a Native American style.

Many of the cultural pieces of evidence also provide intriguing support to Van Sertima’s thesis, though many may legitimately be debated as coincidences or artefacts resulting simply from commonalities in how the human brain interprets the world. The accounts of people such as Christopher Columbus himself, Spanish travelers, and Herodotus, though, are harder to debate. These people essentially provide written testimonies that support Van Sertima’s thesis. How can these accounts be explained away?

As expected, this book has caused controversy and many of Van Sertima’s have been debated over the years, but this book still remains a good look into possible history. Upon casual reading, it does at least make one take its thesis seriously.

Sidenote: I enjoyed the story of Mali in Chapter 3.

Narration

I found an audio version of this book on YouTube. This doesn’t seem to be an official recording. It sounds like someone chose to record himself reading the book and decided to upload the files to YouTube. I’m not sure how legal that is, but I say thanks. With that being said, the narration isn’t the best that I’ve heard. Rhythm, flow, enunciation of some words could be improved upon, but again this seemed to be a random volunteer. So again, thanks. One could do worse.

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