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History, Part Ia – The Olmec Civilization – Extension

In my last blog I said that in my next blog I would focus on the Indus Valley civilization.  However, I have delayed that blog in order to provide my reactions to an article that concludes there is no real evidence that Africans and/or Egyptians ever made it to the Americas prior to Columbus’ voyage in 1492.

In creating the African and Egyptian influences blog on Olmec civilization, I used a number of sources including Dr. Ivan Van Sertima’s book “They Came Before Columbus (TCBC).”

Olmec Head

In November of 2020, a reader of my Olmec Civilization blog wrote me asking for my reaction to “Robbing Native American Culture” (RNAC) written in 1997 by Dr. Gabriel Haslip-Viera, Dr. Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, and Dr. Warren Barbour that seeks to discredit Dr. Van Sertima’s book TCBC.  RNAC says Dr. Van Sertima’s work fails to make a solid case for the following reasons:

1. No genuine African artifact has ever been found in a controlled archaeological excavation in the New World.

2. The presence of African origin plants such as the bottle gourd … or of African genes in New World cotton” … shows “there was contact between the Old World and the New, but this contact occurred too long ago to have involved any human agency.”  As for maize, it “was brought by the Portuguese from the West Indies … to the coast (where it had been unknown) and to other parts of Africa after a.d. 1550.” (RNAC p. 430)

3. The colossal Olmec heads, which resemble a stereotypical ‘‘Negroid,’’ were carved hundreds of years before the arrival of the presumed models. 

4. Nubians, who come from a desert environment-and have long, high noses, do not resemble their supposed ‘‘portraits.’’ 

5. Claims for the diffusion of pyramid building and mummification are fallacious.

In short, RNAC claims Dr. Van Sertima provides no real evidence that Africans and/or Egyptians ever made it to the Americas prior to Columbus’ voyage in 1492.  

In response, I did more research and created this extension of the Olmec blog that contains the following evidence and responses to the five RNAC assertions. 

Assertion 1No Genuine African artifacts found in the new world

Response 1 – This assertion in RNAC does not mention African skeletal remains at two archeological Olmec sites, Tlatilco and Cerro de las Mesas.  Tlatilco was a large pre-Columbian village near the modern-day town of the same name in Mexico and flourished between 1200 BCE to 200 BCE.  Cerro de las Mesas is an archaeological site in Veracruz Mexico, and was a prominent regional center from 600 BCE to 900 CE.  

Dr. Andrzej Wiercinski found some of the Olmec skeletons at Tlatilco and Cerro de las Mesas were of African origin. Another person, R.A. Jairazbhoy, an archeologist whose work was cited in RNAC, is said to have examined Dr. Wiercinski’s work and found that 13.5 percent of the Tlatilco skeletons were of Africans and 4.5 percent of the Cerro skeletons were of Africans.  This suggests that over time the African population gradually fused with the Native American population.

Assertion 2 – “The presence of African origin plants” …. was “too long ago to have involved any human agency.”  The focus is on “cotton, the bottle gourd, and maize.” 

Assertion 2a Bottle Gourd – “If a gourd on its arrival in the New World was tossed up on the beach by a storm and broken so that the seeds could escape or picked up by a curious person and transported inland, the gourd would spread.” (RNAC p. 430)

Response 2a – On pages 206 and 207 of Dr. Van Sertima’s book, it says most “botanists hold that the bottle gourd was introduced into the Americas by natural drift across the ocean.”  Dr. Van Sertima then asks “If it is true that African gourds simply got lost and drifted westward until they hit the American mainland, why did they never appear in cultivation along the waterfront or littoral, but only far inland?”  While this is a question worth answering, it does not make human agency a condition of his theory.

Assertion 2b Cotton – “The time involved in forming hybrids and subsequently diffusing these tetraploid species as widely as they are found means that the time of initial hybridization was thousands of years prior to Van Sertima’s postulated 4th millennium-B.C. drift voyage.” (RNAC p. 430)

Response 2b – Dr. Van Sertima states that the African diploid cotton could not have drifted by itself across the ocean but had to come to the New World via human transport most likely from Africa.  The RNAC discounts the possibility of a human agent in transporting the African cotton to the Americas. The RNAC also discusses research that cites the Killdeer, a bird, that can retain cotton seeds in their guts for several days without loss of seed viability.  However, the migratory patterns of the Killdeer are limited to the Americas.  Warblers fly thousands of miles across the Atlantic, but their journey requires them to “first pack on the pounds, then absorb their intestines, and finally forgo eating and sleeping for three days.  Hence, they cannot be the source of the introduction of the African cotton in the Americas.  This leaves Dr. Van Sertima’s human intervention theory still very viable.

Assertion 2c Maize – “(M)aize was brought by the Portuguese from the West Indies to São Tomē and then transmitted to the coast (where it had been unknown) and to other parts of Africa after A.D. 1550.” (RNAC p. 430)

Response 2c – An article entitled Pre-Columbian Maize in Southern Africa dated August 12, 1967 in Nature, by M.D.W. Jeffreys of the University of Witwatersrand provides evidence for the presence of maize in southern Africa.  He states the inland “Bantu from the north acquired maize long before da Gama had reached Mozambique in 1498 and before Columbus was born.” (page 696)

Assertion 3 – The colossal Olmec heads, which resemble a stereotypical ‘‘Negroid,’’ were carved hundreds of years before the arrival of the presumed models and may have been created before 1100 B.C.   

Response 3 – The authors of RNAC are correct that Dr. Van Sertima’s proposed contact between the Olmecs and the Ancient Egyptians was during the 25th Dynasty of Egypt around 800 B.C. to 680 B.C.  However, if contact between the Egyptians and Olmecs occurred, one would expect an Egyptian influence on the Olmecs, as Dr. Van Sertima says, and an Olmec influence on the Egyptians, which Dr. Van Sertima does not say.  

Evidence of possible Olmec influence on the Egyptians came in 1992, when Dr. Svetla Balabanova, looked at the remains of Pharaoh Ramses II, who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BCE, which is about the time period the RNAC authors say the Olmec heads were created.. Dr. Balabanova analyzed samples from the Pharaoh’s hair, intestinal tract, soft tissue, and bone samples, and found trace amounts of cocaine and nicotine, which are from plants native to the New World that the Egyptians could not have in their systems without contact with the Americas. 

While Dr. Balabanova’s research does not prove Ancient Egyptians interacted with the Olmecs, it does show that Egyptians or a trading partner, like the Land of Punt, were in the Americas prior to 1100 B.C.

Assertion 4 – Olmec heads are of indigenous Americans not Africans

Assertion 4a – Nubians and Egyptians, who come from a desert environment and have long, high noses, do not resemble their supposed “portraits.”  

Response 4a – Below on the left is the bust of Pharaoh Huni of the 3rd Dynasty of ancient Egypt; the bust on the right is Pharaoh Senusret II of the 12th Dynasty of ancient Egypt; and the center picture is the Olmec head used in my Olmec Civilization blog.  This shows that not all ancient Egyptians had high noses and some images of ancient Egyptian heads resembled Olmec heads.

Huni reign c.a.
2637 B.C. – 2613 B.C
Olmec HeadSenusret II reign c.a.
1897 B.C to 1878 B.C.

Assertion 4b – Dr. Van Sertima … “places great emphasis on Tres Zapotes head 2 … because it has seven braids dangling from the back, which he claims” … “to be a characteristically Ethiopian hairstyle. … the Olmec braids do not look like either Egyptian or Nubian ones.” 

Response 4bBraids can be traced back to 3500 B.C. in African culture, have been worn by men and women, and indicate everything from societal status, ethnicity, marital status, religion, and more.  Braids can take many forms.  It should be noted that in Ancient Egypt, the number seven was a symbol of perfection and efficiency. 

Assertion 4c – Nubians and Egyptians, who come from a desert environment-and have long, high noses, do not resemble their supposed portraits.

Response 4c –To highlight the inaccuracy of the assertion, I have included, below, images of Nubians with wide noses and thick lips, and one picture, in the center, of the Olmec head used in my Olmec blog.  These and other pictures show that not all Nubians had high noses and some Nubian and Egyptian head images resembled the Olmec heads.

Nubian denizenOlmec HeadAncient Egyptian
Nubian Art

Assertion 5 – Claims for the diffusion of pyramid building and mummification are fallacious

Assertion 5aClaims of the diffusion of Pyramid Building are fallacious.

Response 5a – I have read articles about similarities between Olmec and ancient Egyptian pyramids and find the arguments to be complex.  However, in 1978 Japanese construction engineers and research scientists from Japan (Nippon Corporation) attempted building a 60-foot-high pyramid using, what were thought to be, ancient Egyptian building techniques.  In the end, modern vehicles and machinery were used to move the stones and position the blocks. And, the Japanese team still had difficulties accurately cutting the stones.  This means ancient Egyptians and Mesoamericans each had ways to build pyramids that are unknown to us today.  While we do not know what the construction methods were, it is easier to imagine ancient Egyptians sharing construction technology with the Olmecs than that each invented a successful technique totally independent of each other when 20th century technology cannot do so today.

Assertion 5b – Mummification – The Chinchorro mummies are mummified remains of individuals from the South American Chinchorro culture, found in what is now northern Chile. They are the oldest examples of artificially mummified human remains, having been buried up to two thousand years before the Egyptian mummies. The oldest human made Chinchorro mummy dates from around 5050 BCE, which means the mummies are over 7,000 years old. 

Response 5b – A mummy found in Uan Muhuggiag, a place in the central Libyan Sahara, called the Tashwinat Mummy, is around 5,600 years old, dating back to 3600 B.C.E.  This chronology means that mummification, like cocaine use, may be an influence of Mesoamericans on ancient Africa. As it predated the Olmec and Egyptian civilizations, it raises interesting questions.  This is an area where more research is needed.

Conclusion

Given the above information, most of the evidence in response to the critical RNAC assertions are shown, by sources other than those of Dr. Van Sertima, to support Dr. Van Sertima’s theory that there was contact between the ancient Egyptians and the Olmec civilization. 

In addition, some of the cited evidence indicates that some of the details of Dr. Van Sertima’s research and theories may be wrong but that his overall theory, for contact and influences of the ancient Egyptians on the Olmecs, was correct.  There is also evidence that the Olmecs had some impact on the Ancient Egyptian civilization.  This is what one would expect if contact occurred between the two civilizations.  

The above evidence suggests that more, not less, research into the interactions between Africans in general, ancient Egyptians in particular, and Mesoamerican civilizations should be conducted.  For example, more research might allow a better understanding of how African cotton arrived in the Americas, the trading relationships that brought cocaine to ancient Egypt, and whether ancient Americans and Africans shared any mummification techniques.  But the research is unlikely to bring new insights unless we bring to the research “a fundamentally new vision of history.”  A vision that sees blacks not as backward, slow, and a “beggar in the wilderness of history, a menial or an eternal and immutable slave.” Instead, new research must envision blacks as accomplished partners in human history.

My next blog will return to my original schedule of focusing on the Indus Valley Civilization.

Comments (2)

  1. George Bustin

    Reply

    This is very detailed and erudite treatment of the evidence of various kinds, ranging from biological and botanical to cultural and architectural. It is a very impressive array of argumentation. There can be little doubt that the question of possible contact between ancient civilizations in Africa and the Americas requires more intensive research. The biggest problem seems to be that the available evidence allows only for inferences that are plausible, and indeed seem probable, but cannot be demonstrated conclusively. My main concern is the way that the conclusion is formulated, that we must begin to envision “blacks” as accomplished partners in human history. I am not certain exactly what is meant by “blacks” in this context. Is there an underlying assumption that the ancient Egyptians, for example, were “whites” who interacted with Nubian and other Africans who were “blacks”? Are we imposing our own culturally constructed concept of race on ancient peoples? Since it appears that all types of current homo sapiens had origins in Africa, and that pigmentation in skin varies widely within the same communities, should we be looking at the question more holistically ? That is, there is only one race, which is the human race, and each of its constituents has contributed to the sweep of human history. Groups that became culturally distinct over time would, through their interactions, have driven technological and other development. This would be as true for the ancestors of today’s “blacks” as for any other group. But perhaps these ancient peoples did not necessarily correspond to our own contemporary constructs about race.

  2. Reply

    I agree that the use of colors to describe ourselves can lead to confusion. It is also true that race, as applied to humans, is a social concept and there “is only one race – the human race.”

    That said, during slavery, people of African descent were called black with attributes of inferiority attached to the term. And since 1865, people of African descent have worked to gain control of their identity using different terms to describe themselves.

    For example, when, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed in February of 1909, the preferred term was ‘colored. By April 25, 1944, while the term colored was still used, the term Negro had become more popular as shown by the name United Negro College Fund. By 1967, while colored and Negro were still used, the preferred term was “black” as visible in the name students, of African descent at Princeton University, gave to the organization promoting their interests, the Association of Black Collegians.

    Because the term black was seen as including anyone of African descent anywhere in the world, terms like Afro-American and African American were also used by 1970.

    In addition, as Isabel Wilkerson notes in her 2020 book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, systemic racism in America is built around a caste system. This caste system is a society-wide system of social stratification characterized by notions such as hierarchy, inclusion, exclusion, and purity. This caste system has existed since the beginning of America, and includes ideas of racial superiority, inferiority, and criminally inclined individuals.

    Hence, people of African descent in America are viewed through the prism of the caste system that makes a person with “one drop” of African blood colored, Negro, black, and/or African American depending on which term is in vogue in America. This produces some interesting anomalies. For example, Walter Francis White, an African-American and civil rights activist who led the NAACP from 1929–1955, said of himself: “I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.”

    And, Walter White is not the only American of African descent who looked “white” or who had very light skin but identified themselves as black, Negro, colored, or African American.

    The caste system dehumanizes and criminalizes blacks in the eyes of many Americans. This is visible in what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, when three white men in Georgia chased and gunned him down, on February, 23, 2020, because, according to his killers, he looked like a man suspected in several break-ins in the area.

    Relative to ancient history, many Americans and Europeans view it through the lens of the caste system. This lens sees blacks as a narrow group of sub-Saharan West Africans who are related to the ancestors of black American slaves. All other people with black or dark brown skin are classified as Hamites or some other “non-black” Caucasian, i.e., “white,” population. This definition of who was black in ancient times is like declaring “white” as only applying to the standard stereotype of a Scandinavian person as having straight, blond, hair and blue eyes and all other light skinned people as some group other than “white.” Defining blacks narrowly is especially interesting since the genetic diversity in Africa is greater than in any other region in the world.

    Similarly, the tendency of some white historians and archaeologists to see anyone who might fit under the black caste as incapable of producing higher order art or civilizations was visible in 1910 when the German anthropologist, Leo Frobenius, visited the Nigerian city of Ife and discovered the first example of an Ife head. Because the heads undermined the existing Western view of African civilizations, Frobenius theorized, without proof, that the heads were cast by a colony of ancient Greeks. Since Frobenius, archaeological dating and other methods have proven the culture and art of Ife were entirely African in origin with no foreign influence.

    As for my history blogs, I use “black” to describe anyone who is part of the African diaspora anywhere in the world. And, while most people think of the African diaspora as beginning with the African slave trade, I trace that diaspora back 5000 years to the ending of the Green Sahara.

    As I noted in my Ancient Egyptian Civilization blog, when the Green Sahara became a desert around 3500 B.C. due to shifts in the world’s weather patterns, the Sahara’s inhabitants were forced to retreat northwards to the Atlas Mountains, southwards to West Africa, and eastwards to the Nile Valley. These migrations, at the end of the Green Sahara, are visible in a number of ways. One is that today, while languages from Mali in Western Africa and Ethiopia in Eastern Africa are very different from one another, many of them still have similar words for Hippo causing some linguists to believe these people once lived in the same place amongst Hippos. As I also noted, these migrations caused black Africans from central-west Sahara to mix with Asians and Caucasians migrating into the north of Egypt creating, in ancient Egypt, a mixed north (primarily Afro-Asian-mulattoes with some Caucasians) and a largely black south (black Africans).

    While the above is true, it is also instructive to note what Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, who wrote a history of the known world 2,440 years ago said. Herodotus did not divide the world by race. Instead, he divided it by continent – Europe, Asia and Libya (Africa). He talks about people with black skin, but not about “black people.” And, in one of his discussions about Egypt, in Book 2, Statement 104, of his writings called The Histories, he says the Egyptians “are black-skinned and have woolly hair.” He also says, in talking about the Colchians, that … they are black-skinned and have woolly hair, which certainly amounts to but little, since several other nations are so too.” He made these statements around 170 years after the Nubians stopped ruling Egypt and around 75 years after the Persians had taken over. Hence, the Egyptians he describes probably looked a lot like the actors in Michael Jackson’s music video Remember the Time.

    Hence, both the modern and Greek use of the term black are part of the reason that I use that term to describe people of African descent. However, I also use the term black to describe certain ancient civilizations because of the social, cultural, and customs of civilizations that show African influences on their origins.

    In so doing, I try to show that the caste system images and stereotypes of “blacks”, that help fuel systemic racism, are false and that seeing history without the caste filter can enable both researchers and everyday people to envision blacks as accomplished partners in human history.

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