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Ivan van Sertima

Ivan van Sertima
Born (1935-01-26)26 January 1935
Karina Village, British Guiana
Died 25 May 2009(2009-05-25) (aged 74)
Highland Park, New Jersey, United States
Residence Highland Park, New Jersey, United States
Citizenship United Kingdom
Nationality Guyanese
Fields Africana Studies
Institutions Rutgers University
Alma mater University of London, Rutgers University
Known for pre-Columbian contact between Africa and the Americas
Spouse Maria Nagy; Jacqueline L. Patten

Ivan Gladstone Van Sertima (26 January 1935 – 25 May 2009) was a Guyanese-born associate professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University in the United States.[1]

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, or else dismissed as Afrocentric pseudohistory to the effect of "robbing native American cultures".[n 1]


  • Early life 1
  • Published work 2
  • Reception 3
  • Death and legacy 4
  • Bibliography 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Early life

Van Sertima was born in Karina Village, Guyana, when Guyana was still a British colony; 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.[3]

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.

Published work

He published his They Came Before Columbus in 1976, as a Rutgers graduate student. The book deals mostly with his claims of African origin of Mesoamerican culture in the Western Hemisphere, but among other things also writing that the kings of the 25th Dynasty of Egypt were Nubians.[4] The book, published by Random House rather than an academic press, 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 in 1997.[2]

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, 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 disappearance of the knowledges.[5] 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).[5] 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".[6]


Van Sertima's work on Olmec civilization has been criticised by Mesoamerican academics,[7]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.[8] In 1997 academics in a Journal of Current Anthropology article criticised in detail many elements of They Came Before Columbus (1976).[2] 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".[2] 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.[2]

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.[2]

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.[2] Instead, Van Sertima replied to his critics in "his" journal volume published as Early America Revisited (1998).[9] His published response contained many incorrect, misleading, and misattributed quotes to the original article. Additionally he claimed that the authors refused to acknowledge existing evidence when instead they had argued the sources of his evidence used methodologically unsound practices. His response merely accuses them of ignoring the evidence, and offers no rebuttal to the quality of said evidence.[10]

For example Van Sertima wrote,

LIE TWO: None of the early Egyptians and Nubians looked like Negroes. "They have long, narrow noses..." "Short, flat noses are confined to the West African ancestors of African-Americans." Again, "there is no evidence that ancient Nubians ever braided their hair. This style comes from colonial and modern Ethiopia."[10]

When in the original article, the authors had actually written:

Both the Olmecs and the West African ancestors of African-Americans have short, flat noses because they lived in wet, tropical areas; Nubians and Egyptians have longer, thinner noses because they have lived in a desert...It should also be noted that all such stereotypes are rooted in the old Anglo-American and European concepts that linked certain "races" with specific physiognomic traits. Thus, for Van Sertima, the colossal stone heads are "portraits" of "Negro-Africans" or the descendants of unions between Africans and Native Americans because they allegedly exhibit the somatic traits of "Negroids". There is no discussion of the fact that so-called Negroid features are commonly seen in combination in East Asian and Pacific populations. For example, broad noses, prognathism, and full or everted lips with "Mongoloid" eyes are quite commonplace among the Burmese, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thais, Malays, Filipinos, and Polynesians.[2]


Argument by assertion is common in Van Sertima's work. People from all over the world (including Europeans) have been braiding their hair for thousands of years. Is he arguing that an Ethiopian was included in the ship that reached America and provided the model for the Olmec head? Why would the Olmecs not have used an Egyptian hairstyle? Frank Yurco (personal communication, 1995), an Egyptologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, points out that the Olmec braids do not look like either Egyptian or Nubian ones. What evidence is there that a seven-braided hairdo was characteristic of Ethiopia in the period 1200-700 B.C.? If Van Sertima's evidence comes from colonial or modern Ethiopia, why should we believe that this hairstyle has prevailed unchanged for thousands of years? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. None is provided.(see Davies 1979:90-92)[2]

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."[11][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".[13]

In 1981, They Came Before Columbus received the "Clarence L. Holte Literary Prize".[14] Sertima was inducted into the "Rutgers African-American Alumni Hall of Fame" in 2004.[1]

Death and legacy

Van Sertima retired in 2006. He died on 25 May 2009 aged 74.[15] 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.[16]


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)

See also


  1. ^ "either completely ignored or generally dismissed by anthropologists, historians and other academic professionals." Haslip-Vierra, de Montellano and Barbour.[2]
  2. ^ 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.[12]


  1. ^ a b "Ivan van Sertima". Rutgers African-American Alumni Hall of Fame Inductees. 2004. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i 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).  
  3. ^ "Van Sertima, Giant Scholar, Dies at 74". Black Star News. 30 May 2009. 
  4. ^ Van Stertima, Ivan (1976). They Came Before Columbus. Random House. p. 125. 
  5. ^ a b Van Sertima (1983). "The Lost Sciences of Africa: An Overview". Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, Journal of African Civilizations 5 (1–2). 
  6. ^ Sirica, Jack (4 August 1987). "Native Opposition to a 1492 Party". Newsday. 
  7. ^ See Grove (1976) or Ortiz de Montellano (1997)./.
  8. ^ Finnegan, Gregory A.; Ogburn, Joyce L.; Smith, J. Christina (2002). "Journals of the Century in Anthropology and Archaeology". In Stankus, Tony. Journals of the Century. New York: Haworth Press. pp. 141–50.  
  9. ^ Ivan Van Sertima, Early America Revisited, Journal of African Civilizations, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1998, pp. 143–52.
  10. ^ a b MAAT News, Volume I, Edition IX, September 1997. Featuring: Reply To My Critics, Ivan Van Sertima.
  11. ^ Dr. Clarence Weiant Letter to the New York Times, 1 May 1977.
  12. ^ "Archaeologists & Scholars: Clarence Wolsey Weiant 1897 – 1986", Smithsonian Institution, 2011, accessed 12 January 2014.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ "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.
  15. ^ "Historian Dr. Ivan Van Sertima Passes", Black Entertainment Network, May 29, 2009.
  16. ^ 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.

External links

  • "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)
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