Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

The Early Peoples of Pre-Columbian America: Ivan Van Sertima and His Critics

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

The Early Peoples of Pre-Columbian America: Ivan Van Sertima and His Critics

Article excerpt

I think it is necessary to make it clear - since partisan and ethnocentric scholarship seems to be the order of the day - that the emergence of the negroid face, which the archaeological and cultural data overwhelmingly confirms, in no way presupposes the lack of a native originality, the absence of other influences, or the automatic eclipse of other faces.

- Ivan van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus, 1976.

Only amateur archaeologists, such as ... Ivan van Sertima, have continued to belittle native people by attributing major elements of their cultural heritage to prehistoric visitors from the Old World.

- Bruce Trigger, A History of Archaeological Thought, 1989.


Since its publication in 1976, Ivan van Sertima's book They Came Before Columbus has gone through twenty-one printings, while receiving widespread - though not unanimous - condemnation from the American archaeological establishment, culminating in a hostile, full-length forum in Current Anthropology.1 And yet, startlingly, the field of American archaeology has recently found itself in the midst of a major paradigm shift, caused by archaeological evidence that obliterates the Clovis model as a legitimate demarcation of the first presence of human settlement in the New World. I believe an explanation for the vitriol that this book has aroused and the academic establishment's refusal to consider van Sertima's claims seriously are best understood through a discussion of the sociology of knowledge, specifically with respect to his status as an outsider to the field of inquiry; the issue of diffusionism in archaeology; and the current assault on the area of research termed "Afrocentrism". I thus propose in this article to trace the response to They Came Before Columbus, while discussing the issue of diffusionism in van Sertima's work.

The question of the first presence of people in the Americas, and the extent of contact between them and "Old World" people in the pre-Columbian era, haunts the historiography of New World archaeology. It is an area that has revealed tantalizing evidence of links and been the arena for passionate polemics, both for and against any significant pre-Columbian contact. Ivan van Sertima's 1976 book, They Came Before Columbus, advanced a thesis not original to him, but bold in the context of contemporary understandings of the peopling of the Americas and the development of their civilizations. His thesis, briefly summarized, is that Africans made contact with the Americas in more than one historical epoch before the voyages of Christopher Columbus. The first major historical period during which contact is postulated by van Sertima is by Nubians of the twenty-fifth dynasty in Egypt (the eighth century BCE), while the second is by the Mandingo around 1310 CE. These two periods of contact did not result simply in the presence of black communities among the Native American populations, but had a significant cultural impact (in the case of the first period of contact) on the civilization of the Olmecs, who, it is widely accepted, were the predecessors of the later great Central American civilizations. Van Sertima situates the wider concerns of his work as part of the quest to reconstruct precolonial African history, before the destructive effects of European expansionism and colonialism. His sensitivity to the relationship between African and Native American peoples is influenced by the fact that he has both of them in his ancestry and lived in the interior of Guyana for a while when a boy. The result is a remarkable work of synthetic and multidisciplinary scholarship, the most powerful effect of which is to challenge the belief that the first Africans in the New World were brought here in chains, and thus that their role as historical actors in this hemisphere has been limited to (as powerful and important as this may be) the struggle against slavery and other types of oppression for the last 400 years. …

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