Throughout the United States, there seems to be a general push to teach children in public schools what certain politicians, religious leaders, and interest groups want to be taught. The contributions of Mexican and Native American cultures are often suppressed and marginalized in the Southwest. In the Southeast, recent textbooks are shown to gloss over the absolute horror and unforgivable crime-against-humanity called slavery. In small pockets of communities and even large states in our nation, there is a concerted effort to remove any mention of the fact of evolution from the classroom. I recently heard an anecdote of high-schoolers being instructed to glue together the pages of their textbooks where it was discussed!
So, when I tell you that I’m against pushing nationalist, religious, or racial agendas in our Public School classrooms, it might seem that I lean left on that issue. I might seem to lean left on a lot of issues. But I think this is an illusion. I lean toward the truth. Or at least the best approximation of it possible.
In the Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, they have listed on their webpage a number of social sciences lesson plans with a section on African American Voices. Nearly each one of these is a wonderful plan filled with thought provoking readings and questions for the students to discuss. The types of classes I most enjoyed in my younger years.
There is, however, one class that stands out from the rest as having a serious flaw: “The African and Chinese Presence in America Before Columbus.”
This lesson plan draws heavily on what has long been shown to be pseudoscientific works, specifically, the works of Ivan Van Sertima, beginning with his 1976 book titled, They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America (Random House). Two of his other works, equally pseudoscientific in nature, are listed as well: Early America Revisited (1998, Transaction Publishers); and African Presence in Early America (1999, Transaction Publishers). Also on the reading list is Gavin Menzies’ book, 1421: The Year China Discovered America (2004, Harper Perennial), which is another text that makes bold and specific claims without supporting evidence.
One thing worth underscoring before I dive into why this particular lesson plan is bad: most of the lesson plans on their site seem very appropriate. African American studies are a vital addition to our public schools and have many upsides. They promote healthy self-image for students of color and they educate white students on the realities of racial divides. And so much more.
But, as an archaeologist, I feel I have a responsibility to stand in the way of pseudoarchaeologists who would seek to marginalize other cultures—to rob them of their achievements—in favor of a preferred but false narrative. And i don’t pretend this is an original thought of my own as I read it long ago and was happy to see it quoted again in the well-sourced and written article in Current Anthropology (Haslip-Viera, Ortiz de Montellano, & Barbour 1997) which I lean heavily on in this article to show why Van Sertima and his Afrocentrist views are not only bad, they’re destructive for young students to be taught as historical fact.
To do this, I’ll highlight several of Van Sertima’s primary arguments regarding his earliest claims of contact between Africans and Mesoamericans. In the lesson plan are some suggested discussions of the alleged voyages of Abu-Bakarii II at around the 14th century CE as well as alleged Chinese voyages to North America. I’ll simply say that neither of these propositions are supported by archaeological evidence. However, the early contact claims I think are the more important since these are where Van Sertima hinges most of his later claims about African influence on Mesoamerica (the part that actually robs indigenous cultures of their own identity).
1. Olmec Heads
Van Sertima (and other pseudoscientific Afrocentrists) tend to point out that since the colossal Olmec head monuments have “negroid” features (large lips, flat noses, etc.) they are, therefore, depictions of Africans in Mesoamerica.
Van Sertima’s claim is that Africans from Nubia and Egypt sailed to the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the Olmec region with the help of Phoenicians at around the 11th century BCE, which corresponds to the 25th Dynasty of Egypt. There, they encountered the Olmecs who then accepted the Africans as their rulers, making the Nubians the models for the colossal stone heads.
There are some problems with this claim.
The assumption that flat noses and wide lips are Nubian or African only traits, for instance. Evolutionary speaking, noses develop in a population due to climate. In a dry climate, noses tend to be larger and longer. In a warm, wet climate, noses tend to be smaller, and flatter. This is because moistening the air is one of the things the nose does. Olmecs live in a tropical, humid locality, like many people in Africa. So they have short, flat noses. Care to know who doesn’t live in a tropical, humid locality? Nubians, Egyptians, and Phoenicians. All three live in dry, desert conditions. They depend on long, thin noses (in general) that can moisturize air that’s being breathed in before it reaches the lungs.
Also, Olmecs today look like these large, head statues. And, in spite of how they look, DNA among them show no input from African or even European sources. Genetically, Africans did not intermix with the Olmecs (Arnaiz-Villena, et al 2000; Brown 2009; Coop 2009; Thompson, Helen 2015). You could say, “well they traded with them but just didn’t have sex with them.” But then you don’t also get to say the colossal Olmec heads are modeled after Africans since their modern descendants still resemble the monuments today! The same descendants that lack genetic input from Africa.
The two comparisons above originated from the blog, Silent View News. I thought they hit the mark so I borrowed them.
And neither the Nubians, the Egyptians, or the Phoenicians generally had short, wide noses. This is a feature more common with tropical humid nations.
2. The Africans brought the technology to build pyramids.
Except, during the time Van Sertima claims the Africans voyaged to Mesoamerica, the Egyptians were done building large pyramids. In fact, they only made small tombs. the last large pyramid was Khenjefer’s built at around 1777 BCE. When Van Sertima’s alleged voyages are to occur in 1200 BCE (11th Century), Egyptians were largely burying their dead in secret. And there are many, many differences in the manner that Olmec structures (and later Mesoamerican pyramids) were built. Nubian pyramids were built using stone and gravel, contained tombs and grave goods, and murals of mortuary scenes and written texts. The Olmecs, however, used alternating layers of clay and earth rather than stone. And their structures were not mortuary. Instead, they were used for ceremonial purposes and religious ritual. And they were part of a larger city complex with courtyards, plazas, and other mounds and structures.
So the question, if Van Sertima is correct, becomes: Why bother showing the Olmecs how to build something they stopped building hundreds of years before?
Van Sertima claims that Egyptians taught people in the New World how to prepare their dead through mummification. If you’re using the lesson plan provided by the Miami-Dade County School Board, pick up the 1995 book in the suggested readings list and flip to page 86. Read on to the next page. Or the 1976 book… check pages 156 through 162.
Then as yourself why he would say, “We have indisputable proof of Mexican mummification. . . . one of the best examples is the mummified figure in the sarcophagus at Palenque”?
Especially, when K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, the ruler in the sarcophagus was not mummified. You can see in the photo (left) that he was a skeleton. No indication of any attempt at mummification. Also, the oldest mummy in the world was found in Chile, dating to approximately 5050 BCE (long, long before Van Sertima claims the first contact by African/Egyptian/Phoenician voyagers).
Another point about Pakal’s tomb that Van Sertima makes is that it is of Egyptian style since it flares out at the bottom.
Egyptians made sarcophagi with a flared base to enable them to stand it up because their burials were vertical. . . . The Mexicans, like the Nubians, buried in a horizontal position, yet at Palenque the flared base is retained
You can see in the original photo of Pakal’s bones that he is, indeed, inside a space with a flared bottom. But when you look at the next photograph (right), you can see that the flared bottom is actually just a wide open section of the interior. The exterior of the sarcophagus is quite rectangular. And large. It’s almost as if Van Sertima looked only at the photo on the left and not the larger sarcophagus in the photo on the right. Incidentally, Pakal’s tomb is the one with that lid that other pseudoarchaeologists like to say he is depicted as an astronaut in a rocket ship. Fun fact. It’s actually not a rocket ship at all, but a depiction of the World Tree and Pakal is entering the realm of the dead through the open jaws of the funerary serpent.
4. Technology to make a trans-Atlantic voyage
Implied throughout, of course, is that Egyptians/Nubians/Phoenicians have the technological skill to make a trans-Atlantic voyage. We know the Egyptians knew how to sail. They did so up and down the Nile all the time, and they were probably the first civilization to make effective use of sails perhaps by around 3500 BCE. It was also the Egyptians that were probably the first to use wood planks for the hulls of boats. Murals depicting journeys to Punt and elsewhere show up in several ancient Egyptian sites along with the archaeological remains of boats. For 2000 years, Egypt was the world’s major naval power. But riverine navigation or even marine navigation within the Mediterranean and Red Seas is vastly different from intercontinental navigation on the open ocean. Many Egyptian boats and barges have been excavated, but none worthy for more than riverine trips or short jaunts in the Mediterranean or Red Seas. These boats were lashed together with rope and, in later sea-going vessels, more firmly constructed with wooden pegs. Along with sails, they also often had a complement of rowers.
And yet, these small ships were not ready for the open ocean. They struggled in Mediterranean where they hugged the coastline currents as they went east for timber and other goods, then found the winds of the open sea for the return voyage. A return that was slower, due in part to the added weight of the cargo, and far more perilous due to the uncertainty of weather. They almost certainly timed their trade expeditions to coincide with seasons that were relatively calm. These, quite simply, were not ships built for long-term expeditions that would last months at sea.
If, however, we assume that the ancient Egyptians did have sea-worthy ships—ships that have yet to be discovered in the archaeological record—then we’re left with this assumption: that the Egyptians were willing to trade for hundreds of years with the New World and never write down the exploit! This is the culture that so proudly depicted trips to Punt, which was probably somewhere along the west coast of Africa. They sufficiently documented trade voyages to places now known as Cyprus and Lebanon for timber and other goods. The Egyptians detailed a great many journeys and expeditions over land as well. They wrote down details of technological advancements so that future generations might continue their work. If the ancient Egyptians navigated to South America and back, they kept it secret. And not just the journeys, but the methods they used to navigate, how they built ships that could make months long ocean crossings, and what other trade goods were involved. If they made trans-Atlantic journeys, they were uncharacteristically bashful of the accomplishment.
And, curiously, they never even colonized islands along the way like the Canary Island, Seychelles, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Madagascar, or others.
Van Sertima’s works are pseudoscientific at best, pure fiction at worst. The idea of offering African American Voices as a topic of study to students in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools is a noble one. And I think probably all of their other curricula are spot on. If anything, there are additional topics to cover. But “The African and Chinese Presence in America Before Columbus” curriculum actually endangers their students. If this were a course balanced with solid archaeological evidence and modern DNA studies, presented in way that was designed to promote critical thinking, it would be something more acceptable—but still risky.
Instead, this curriculum presents historical falsehoods as fact, without any apparent counter-criticism or arguments. And then it encourages the students to not only write letters to text book editors and publishers with appeals to include this pseudoscientific, Afrocentrist perspective in future editions, it requires the polished, professional versions of these letters actually be sent. While there is certainly a danger that they might be taken seriously and the publishers choose to make these updates, this still isn’t the thing that endangers students the most.
What creates the most risk for Miami-Dade County Public School students with a curriculum like this is that they accept it on face value. And then go to a university.
Once they reach a university and find themselves truly marginalized and dismissed for their incorrect beliefs, beliefs in pseudoscientific points of view they had barely a chance of seeing through because of the position of authority it was presented from, they are at risk of being suspicious of anything presented to them from an academic point of view. They are now in the position to either revise beliefs they may have formed several years before or distrust the very system that can empower them for a future they have yet to embrace.
I offer two quotes by two academics on this topic.
The first is by Michael Coe, perhaps one of the leading Mesoamerican archaeologists and anthropologists of our time:
I find two aspects of Van Sertima’s Afrocentric thesis extremely disturbing. First, it demeans and trivializes the genuine cultural achievements of native Americans. The creation of Mesoamerica’s first civilization, the Olmec, was a mighty achievement, and to attempt to take this away from the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica on the flimsiest basis is an unworthy exercise. Secondly, it disturbs me as an American citizen to see this kind of wishful thinking imposed on our education system; it is only too similar to the attempt by creationists to force their own unscientific beliefs on biology classes.
The second is by Gerald Early, a professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University:
Afrocentrism is Eurocentrism in blackface. One of the serious problems that oppressed people like African-Americans face is dealing with the sometimes destructive tendency to create parallel institutions that copy white ones almost entirely. In this case, here is an attempt at institutionalized history with all the racist prerogatives of European imperialist history. Afrocentrism is not only a historiography of decline, as Wilson J. Moses suggested, a history of defeat, but a historiography of resentment and jealousy of European history. Now, with the help of Van Sertima, we blacks have our Captain Cook myth. In- deed, it even goes the Cook myth one better, as the natives here not only worshiped the blacks as gods but never deigned to eat them.
I also acknowledge that much of this was sourced from the essay in Current Anthropology by Haslip-Viera, Ortiz de Montellano, & Barbour linked below. They took this topic on in 1997 and much of what I wrote was drawn from their work. Because of this, what I pres
ented was a much abbreviated, somewhat augmented version. I encourage any educator serious about understanding the topic further to read their essay.
Edit 8/1/2018: The Miami-Dade County Public Schools has since removed the lesso
n plan, though there are doubtless many school districts in the U.S. that have similar (or perhaps exact) lesson plans. Thank you, MDCPS, for acting quickly to make the correction.
Further Reading and Sources
See also: https://www.andywhiteanthropology.com/blog/nations-4th-largest-metropolitan-school-district-teaching-kids-that-olmecs-were-africans [Andy White Anthropology].
Arnaiz-Villena, A; et al (2000). HLA genes in Mexican Mazatecans, the peopling of the Americas and the uniqueness of Amerindians. Tissue Antigens, 56(5), 405-416.
Brown, David (2009). Among Many Peoples, Little Genomic Variety. Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/21/AR2009062101726_pf.html
Corrie, Damon (2014). Silent View News (Blog). http://damongerardcorrie.blogspot.com/2014/05/new-olmecs-were-amerindians-not.html
Coop, Graham; et al (2009). The Role of Geography in Human Adaptation. PLOS Genetics, June 5 http://journals.plos.org/plosgenetics/article?id=10.1371/journal.pgen.1000500
Haslip-Viera, Gabriel; Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard; & Barbour, Warren (1997). Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertima’s Afrocentricity and the Olmecs. Current Anthropology, 38(3), 419-441.
Thompson, Helen (2015). A DNA Search for the First Americans Links Amazon Groups to Indigenous Australians. Smithsonian Magazine https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/dna-search-first-americans-links-amazon-indigenous-australians-180955976/