History, Part I – The Olmec Civilization

This is the first in a seven-blog series on history. In this blog, I describe how blacks were viewed in history as I was growing up, how I was able to overcome the negative views of blacks in history, and how my view of the world was altered when I learned about the Olmec civilization.

An Olmec bust

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I, like most Americans, believed the history of Africans in the Americas began in 1619 when the first shipment of black slaves arrived. And, as I grew up with this history, what convinced me I could be successful were my parents’ stories about the achievements of the Bells, Cooks, Glenns and Denbys, my grandparents’ families.

A story about the Denbys, my mother’s mother’s family, was that one of her grandfathers was one of the first black patrolmen in Philadelphia. On my father’s side was a story of the Bells who migrated first to Oklahoma and later to California. These relatives were described as wealthy individuals. These and other stories fostered a “can do” attitude within me that said there was nothing I could not do. And, had I known in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was doing family history research, about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, I would have asked the handful of relatives, from that branch of the family, if they or their parents were survivors of the Tulsa race massacre, and had left Oklahoma to avoid being killed.

But in spite of these sources of pride, I still felt the weight of being a black American. The weight of a history where ancient black societies had no boats able to make a transatlantic trip, and were seen as illiterate, uncivilized people who benefitted from the slave trade because it introduced them to the positive elements of Western civilization. This negative view of blacks in history was reinforced by my 11th grade history teacher who told me when I complained about the lack of black accomplishments being highlighted in his history class, that it was good black accomplishments were not taught because then everyone would see how few accomplishments there were. In short, I was weighed down by a version of history that said I was descended from a race of people who had contributed nothing of significance to the arc of human progress and civilization.

Then one day, while in college and attending a conference on civil rights, I heard about the existence of a black Indian tribe in the Americas. While I could not remember the name or location of the tribe, the existence of black people in the Americas before 1619, fired my imagination and created a desire to locate this black tribe. For, if this black tribe existed, it contradicted the version of history I was taught that said the first blacks to arrive in the Americas were brought by whites as slaves or servants. The history I was taught also said pre-Columbian black Africans had neither the boats nor the knowledge to traverse the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the Americas. In short, blacks were seen as backward, slow, and a “beggar in the wilderness of history, a menial or an eternal and immutable slave.”

Hence, the presence of a black Indian tribe would mean the history I was taught was incomplete. When I began my search, I hoped finding the black Indian tribe would prove that blacks made it to the Americas, in a pre-Columbian past, as explorers not slaves or servants. I also hoped to remove some of the virtual graffiti that colors and distorts what I and others see every time we look through the window of time to see and interpret history.

I use the term “graffiti that colors and distorts” what I and others see when we look at the past through the window of time because it seems to describe what is happening. According to Wikipedia, “graffiti is writing or drawings made on a wall or other surface, usually without permission and within public view” that “ranges from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings.” And, the descriptions and images of blacks in history as lacking in maritime abilities, indigenous written languages, and advanced technology, culture, architecture, or civilizations are false. Hence, the descriptions and images discounting blacks as a source for past civilizations distorts reality and exist in public view without the permission of the people being portrayed.

As I conducted my research, what I found surpassed what I had imagined. For in searching for a black Indian tribe in the Americas, I found the Olmec civilization. The Olmec civilization was the first known Mesoamerican civilization. It arose around 1200 B.C and lasted for approximately 800 years until 400 B.C. Located in the modern-day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco, the Olmec civilization laid many of the foundations for the Mesoamerican civilizations that followed like the Mayans and Aztecs. And, while many historians in the 1970s considered the written language and origins of the Olmecs to be a mystery, research by people like Dr. Ivan Van Sertima has shown that much of the technology and written language of the Olmecs is derived from 25th Dynasty Egyptian and West African traits circa 800 to 654 B.C.

The bust, at the start of this blog, is one of seventeen giant head sculptures carved from large basalt boulders and are 3.8 to 11.2 feet in size. These busts were created during the Olmec civilization. Interestingly, many historians have dismissed the likeness of these statutes to black people by concluding that they are stylized images or noting that there are people living in the area of the statutes today who resemble the busts and are therefore native American not African in origin. Similarly, in seeking to identify the source of the Olmec written script historians concluded that “there is not enough continuous Olmec script for archaeologists to decipher the language.” And since the graffiti that colors and distorts what we see when we look through the window onto history says that no African cultures created a system of writing, most archeologists saw no reason to waste their time searching for the origins of the Olmec script in an African civilization.

At one point in Dr. Ivan Van Sertima’s book, They Came Before Columbus, it says the Olmecs arrived on the Mexican Gulf Coast circa 1200 B.C. and shortly after their appearance “all kinds of civilized activity appears including massive organization of labour, a trade network, ceremonial centres with pyramids, colossal sculpture, relief carving, wall painting, orientation of structures, gods and religious symbolism, an obsession with the Underworld, representation of foreign racial types, hierographic writing and scripts, seals and rings, use of iron”, and other innovations.

In discussing the Olmec civilization and the impact of peoples of Africa on its creation, Dr. Van Sertima notes that the “Olmecs were a people of three faces, one of which was Mongoloid which may have come from Asia after the glacial migrations across the Bering Strait but blended indistinguishably with the Ice Age Americans. The “second face or influence was Negroid.” The third suggests a trace of Mediterranean Caucasoids, probably Phoenicians who were related historically to the second face. According to Dr. Van Sertima, these three faces became one face to which the broad name “Olmec” was given. Dr. Van Sertima sees these three faces as a fusion or marriage of cultures, not a fatal collision of cultures. But as Dr. Van Sertima notes on page 35, the “influence of Negro-Africans on Olmec culture … was considerable.”

In discussing African influences on the Olmec civilization Dr. Van Sertima cites: 1) Egyptian type pyramids; 2) Egyptian type mummies; 3) false beards worn by high priests; 4) trepanned skulls where a surgical procedure drills a hole or scrapes into the human skull; 5) stelae which are upright stone slabs or columns typically bearing a commemorative inscription or relief design; 6) hieroglyphs; and 7) the ritual use of purple as an exclusively royal and priestly color. Some say these similarities are due to coincidence. While this may be true for one or two similarities, the number of similarities indicates they are due to contact between Africa and the Native American Olmec peoples. For example, if there is a 50% chance Olmec and Egyptian pyramids are the same and a 50% chance Egyptian and Olmec mummies are the same, then the chance both traits would exist in both cultures would be 25%. Add a third trait and the likelihood drops to 12.5%. At seven common traits the likelihood becomes less than 1% that the similarities are due to coincidence.

Combining the above traits with the fact that 13.5% of the skeletons examined in the pre-classic Olmec cemetery of Tlatilco “were Negroid,” the existence of seventeen giant head sculptures like the one at the start of this blog, and similarities between the Olmec and West African Mande written scripts, a black African influence on the formation of the Olmec civilization becomes clear. Based on Dr. Van Sertima’s work, blacks also influenced the Andean civilizations in Peru.

The conclusion that runs through the history blog series, as articulated by Dr. Van Sertima, is that what “is needed far more than new facts is a fundamentally new vision of history.” During the upcoming history series, I shall attempt to introduce a small glimmer of that new vision.

My next blog will focus on the ancient Egyptian civilization.

Comments (4)

  1. George Bustin


    Very instructive, Howard. I suppose the people who built the Olmec civilization came from diverse places over some centuries. We have known for a long time about the influence of the Nubians on the Egyptians (and vice versa). To the extent they belonged to any “race” that we would identify as extent today, that would have to be some combination of African and Semitic peoples. We might need to accept the conclusion that the “races” we (somewhat arbitrarily) identify today are actually not the same as those that existed 2500 years ago. We are all (even Han Chinese) in fact the products of millennia of mixing of races. Clearly many if not most of today’s Caucasian Americans are a mix of genetic backgrounds (think of the white American with Irish maternal and Sicilian paternal grandparents, a Celtic and probably Greek and Arab mix. ) The same must be even more true for American blacks — can we say that someone whose great grandparents in South Carolina were Ibo on one side and Kikuyu on the other — with some white ancestor thrown in from the period of slavery — is “negroid” in the same sense that, say, Nubians were 2500 years ago? In any case, the possibility that ancient Egyptians were present in the Olmec world is intriguing and certainly plausible, given the sophistication of their culture and technical skills. Those Egyptians, if they were present, may well have included assimilated Nubians. Anyway, I am all in favor of enlightenment on the positive accomplishments of blacks, but I am wary of the binary distinction between “white” and “black” as applied to us Americans.

    • Reply

      George, you raise excellent points. You are correct that the binary distinction between “white” and “black” as applied to us Americans is most likely very different from how the ancients viewed themselves. In truth, I could do an entire blog on the complexities of the issues raised in your comment. However, for the sake of brevity let me make the following observations.

      Being “black” in America is more of a socio-economic invention than a genetic reality. For example, for most of my life being black has been defined by the “one drop” rule. The “one-drop rule,” as you may know, was used by the Federal government in the Fourteenth Census in 1920 when the Census Bureau stated “the term ‘white’ as used in the census report refers to persons understood to be pure blooded whites. A person of mixed blood is classified according to the nonwhite racial strain.” Hence, “a person of mixed white … and Negro … is classified as … a Negro … regardless of the amount of white blood.” While it was never codified into federal law, at least four states passed laws defining race by the “one drop” rule. And while the state laws are no longer in force, in 1985, a Louisiana woman was denied her request to be classified as white on her passport because of a black ancestor four generations back.

      While these laws and census definition are no longer applicable, the “one-drop” rule still defines how race is viewed in America. This is visible in the fact that Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and a mother of English descent, and Kamala Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican father and East Indian mother are seen as black Americans by both themselves and the nation.

      Other countries have taken a different view of race. Even Apartheid South Africa classified people as black, colored, and white where coloreds were people of mixed-race ancestry.

      However, 2,000 to 5,000 years ago the world viewed populations not as white or black but as Egyptians, Greeks, Nubians, Phoenicians, Romans, and others. Many of these populations, like the Egyptians, were an admixture of what we, in 20th and 21st century America, call diverse groups of black and white peoples. For example, by its middle Kingdom, Egyptians resembled the range of colors in today’s black American population. A portrayal, in popular culture, of that range is visible in Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” YouTube video. While the people in this video are classified as black in America, they resemble the people seen in paintings from ancient Egypt.

      Part of my frustration, as a black person, learning about civilizations like ancient Egypt is that while the “one drop” rule means any black ancestry in America makes one black, many people when defining the “racial” type of ancient civilizations use a “one drop” rule that says any white ancestry makes its citizens Caucasians loosely defined as members of the “white race.”

      To that end the concept of the Hamitic race was created in the 19th century where Hamites were seen as a subgroup of the Caucasian race. According to E.A. Hooton, an American anthropologist at Harvard University, the Caucasian race was one of three primary races (Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid). The Hamites were believed to be superior to or more advanced than the “Negroid” populations of Sub-Saharan Africa. In its most extreme form, virtually all significant achievements in African history were considered to be the work of “Hamites.”

      To avoid the incredible tangle of racial ambiguity when discussing the origins of ancient civilizations like the Olmecs, Egyptians, and others, I have and will focus on the origins of non-racial characteristics of a civilization like its unique architectural style, burial practices, religious beliefs, and other distinct characteristics to identify the origins of a civilization.

      Hence, when I said towards the end of the Olmec blog that “a black African influence on the formation of the Olmec civilization becomes clear,” I am referring to the origin story of ancient Egypt. I will discuss that origin story in my next blog, as well as the influence of the West African Mande peoples had on the formation elements of the Olmec civilization.

  2. Reply

    Thank you for inviting me to read about the OLMEC Civilization. I look forward to learning more.
    Wishing you safety, health, happiness, peace, and good works, as always!
    Warmest regards,
    Martha Kanter

  3. Linda Ott


    Thank you for your research. It raises the awareness that our ancestors, recent (within the last 500 years) or earlier (2,500 years and more) challenge what we know to be race. I hope this research opens the conversations about how we judge others based on little more than surface value. I look forward to following this blog. Thanks to Mayet for making me aware of it. Best to you, Linda Ott

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