…that Africans came to the Americas before Columbus? – Part II
… that Africans came to the Americas before Columbus? – Part II
My last post was meant to whet your appetite by dropping a few ironic gems such as my storing in memory the photo of a black Aztec dancer from high school Spanish book and my being president of a high school Spanish honor society called Quetzalcoatl, an important Aztec-Mexican god. In the next couple of posts, I will give more detail and explanations of the African contacts with Ancient Americans over a period of some 3,000 years.
I realize that these assertions about the presence of Black Africans in pre-Columbian America may seem, to many, if not most, to be “fantastic” romanticizing or speculation on the part of the advocates of these assertions. Therefore, I find it necessary to lay out very clearly the logic of and evidence for these “fantastic” assertions. I need to remind the reader of the obstacles to fairly judging or assessing this issue. The obstacle is a type of “genteel” racism that is a legacy of slavery; this racism is found in the most unlikely of places, our academic institutions. It is the paternalistic type of racism espoused by those who, on the surface, appear to be friends of Black People but who, in actuality, view Black People as not having the ability to measure up to other races. It is not red-neck racism but a type of racism that views Black People as hapless, weak victims who have never been able to compete with the superior white and yellow races. Do they come right out and say this? No. But read between the lines.
This is a legacy of slavery that caused African Black People* to be viewed as somehow inferior to whites and, therefore, enslaving them was a net benefit in exposing them to white civilization, thereby assuaging the guilty conscience of the slave owners and a country which allowed slavery. Before the advent of modern slavery, this was probably not the view held by most Europeans. What I am saying is that racism did not bring about slavery but that slavery brought about racism§. When such thinking has become unconsciously embedded in the mind, it dictates what the mind will and will not allow. Anything that contradicts this unstated axiom will be thrown out.
In light of the above considerations, three tasks are before us:
- Establish that Black Africans were in America going back some 3,000 years.
- Demonstrate how these Africans impacted the culture of Ancient America in significant ways, not as subservient individuals but as rulers and/or individuals of high position.
- Establish how the Africans got here.
None of what is said in this post is meant to denigrate the wonderful achievements of the Ancient Mexicans and other Ancient Americans who built marvelous civilizations. It is to say that at certain points, they were helped along or impacted by Africans over a long period of time. This does not diminish the achievements of Ancient Americans no more than acknowledging that the Greek alphabet is derived from the Phoenician alphabet which as derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs diminishes the great and wonderful achievements of Europeans. Indeed, practically all modern writing systems, with possible exception of the Chinese writing systems, ultimately go back to the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Yet this great modern civilization of the Western world is an achievement the Europeans can rightly be proud of. You cannot separate the civilization from the genius of the Europeans, notwithstanding the outside contributions.
Proof of African Presence in Pre-Columbian America
The most compelling proof of the African presence in Ancient America is found in the representations of Ancient American artists. This essay and the other essays that follow draw heavily upon the work of the late historian Ivan Van Sertima and the German Art Historian turned archaeologist, Alexander von Wuthenau. When viewing the Ancient American representations of Africans, keep in mind the admonition of von Wuthenau speaking about how the Ancient American artists saw things, “…they possessed and still possess two remarkable abilities. To begin with they can see without looking; and what they see they do see, and nobody can tell them that they did not see what they did see.”1 Von Wuthenau found it necessary to issue this admonition because he saw how expert Americanists (those who study the culture and history of the Americas) more often than not refuse to acknowledge what their eyes see. To illustrate this point, von Wuthenau recalls a young graduate student saying, after he had looked at photographs for his book, “They look like Negroes but they aren’t.” Wuthenau comments that his thinking was the “result of university training.”2 Von Wuthenau did not argue with the young man.
Though there is ample proof of the pre-Columbian African presence throughout the Americas, this essay concentrates on the heartland of early Mexican civilization which encompasses the Southeastern Mexican states of Vera Cruz, Tabasco, Puebla, Mexico, and Oaxaca. The states of Guerrero, Chiapas, and Campeche also come into play.
Let us now view one of the types of evidence the Ancient Mexican artists left us, the huge stone heads found at San Lorenzo, Tres Zapotes, and La Venta which are located in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco. One of the large heads from San Lorenzo is shown as the Featured Image of this post. View below photographs of several other huge Olmec heads. Altogether, seventeen of these huge heads have been found, 10 at San Lorenzo, 4 at La Venta, 2 at Tres Zapotes, and 1 at Lacobata.They range in height from 5 to 11 feet and weigh between 6 and 50 tons. All but 4 were found in the state of Veracruz.3 They go back approximately 2,500 years ago, having been estimated as being made between 800 B.C. and 600 B.C.4 These heads are not simply stylized productions; each one is different facially and each may be considered to be a portrait of a living individual. Also their helmets are different. An unbiased observer would conclude that these faces are Negroid, without hesitation.
Many, if not most, historians and archaeologists either do not talk about the racial/ethnic identity of the heads or deny that they are African. Those who touch on the racial aspect of the heads will say the physical features are common to people who live in the areas where the heads were found. If these features are common to the people still living in the areas, perhaps it is because they carry the genes of those ancient Africans. Consistent with the aforementioned suggestion is the fact that the Afro-Mexican population of 1.8 million tends to be concentrated in the states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Guerrero where most of the heads were found.5 Some have labelled these heads as accidental creations of the artists. I guess you could call this the “Oops Theory”!6
Though some question what they see, there seems to be pretty much agreement that the individuals sculptured were rulers. However, starting with José Melgar y Serrano, who first brought these colossal heads to the world’s attention, many authoritative scholars have acknowledged the “Africanness” of the heads. Melgar described them as Ethiopian (meaning African, not Abyssinian) in appearance in the 1870’s. Wuthenau described Melgar’s reaction this way: “Melgar’s mind, not yet tainted by certain currents of modern (and perhaps not so modern) anthropology, reacted quite normally to this newly found evidence of black man’s presence in Ancient America.”7
Von Wuthenau gives a summary of the evidence in the following words: “…the startling fact is that in all parts of Mexico, from Campeche in the east to the south coast of Guerrero, and from Chiapas, next to the Guatemalan border, to the Panuco River in the Huastecas region (north of Veracruz), archaeological pieces representing Negro or Negroid people have been found, especially in archaic or pre-Classic sites. This also holds true for large sections of Mesoamerica and far into South America – Panama, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.”8 The pre-Classic period is before Olmec culture was fully developed, before it had fully come into its own. In short, the Africans were there at the beginning of Olmec civilization.
Based on illustrations in his book, von Wuthenau concluded that “the finest sculptural efforts of San Lorenzo came first, with not the slightest indication of an artistic evolution leading up to the masterpieces. The implications of the second fact are prodigious. Several distinguished Negro personages and at least one, or several, first-rate artists, complete with well-developed stone sculpture techniques, appeared, so to speak, out of the blue on the American continent 3,000 years ago! Up to now absolutely no reasonable explanation has been given by any scientific professional for this startling event”9. To my knowledge, that is pretty much where the state-of-knowledge stands now.
Further developing von Wuthenau’s statement, how can we determine what the Africans found upon arrival and what did they bring with them? To answer that question, we now turn to Van Sertima who developed the following guidelines for determining what is a loan and what is native.
- Be time-specific and culture-specific.
- Cite evidence, where possible, of a long evolution of the habit, artifact, system or technique, in the area of the donor.
- Demonstrate a lack of known antecedents in the area of the recipient.
- Consider levels of identity in complexity as against superficial stylistic similarity,
- Think not in terms of single traits but of complexes or clusters of interlocking parallels.10
Van Sertima applies his guidelines to come to a position on whether the Egypto-Nubians (the Black Africans represented by the colossal heads) brought the knowledge of pyramid building to Mexico.
- There was a very long history of pyramid building in Egypt, Nubia (Cush), and Western Asia (Babylon) but there were no pyramids in America before the “contact period” (800-680 B.C.).
- “The first American pyramids appear at La Venta along with the colossal Negroid heads. Suddenly in the “contact period” the Ziggurat or stepped temple (a particular kind of Babylonian/Egyptian pyramid) begins to appear in America, and not only is the design identical but, like its presumed prototype, it is sun-star oriented and encircled by a precinct [fenced enclosure]. Not only are the shape and religious functions the same but also the astronomical and spatial relationships.”11
- During the period under consideration, the Nubians (Cushites) were still building stepped pyramids.
Based on numerous considerations, Van Sertima concluded that the Egypto-Nubians who landed on the Gulf were sailing on Phoenician vessels in search of metals when they got caught up in currents that caused them to drift into the Gulf of Mexico, eventually ending up in Mexico. The Phoenicians were the merchant Marines of the Egyptians who for centuries maintained close ties with Phoenicians who at times were essentially a colony or vassal state of Egypt. This is plausible because the Ancient American artists created a statue of a Semite alongside the colossal Negroid heads and who appears to be Phoenician based on his dress, something there seems to be pretty much agreement on. The “contact period” postulated by Van Sertima falls within the 100-year period of the 25th Dynasty, the last Cushite dynasty to rule Egypt, and fits with the carbon-dating of the heads and the pyramids. Additionally it is almost certain that Semites from Western Asia and Japanese drifters made contact at numerous times with the Americas and Mexico in particular, centuries before Columbus.
Von Wuthenau and Van Sertima are generally in agreement except for the contact period. Von Wuthenau accepts R. A. Jairazbhoy’s thesis that the “the Olmecs were transatlantic emigrants from Egypt who had been sent on an Expedition by Rameses III”.12 Jairazbhoy puts the date of the expedition at around 1187 B.C. Van Sertima rejects that date because it is too early relative to when the colossal heads and the first pyramids were built. Furthermore, he points out that the Egyptians had stopped building stepped pyramids, or pyramids period, centuries before but the Nubians were still building them.
It is right and proper that I should end this post with the words of a Mexican scholar and investigator, Alfonso Medellin Zanil, who as Director of the Archaeological Museum of the State of Veracruz in Jalapa, said,
“Kinky hair, broad chubby noses, thick lips and other less definable corporal features, belong to the ethnic group of Negroes, alien to Amerindian man. It is possible that at the end of the pre-Classic a small group of Negroes arrived on the Atlantic shores of America, though they could not perpetuate their biological inheritance, on account of their small numbers. Memory, legend and myth would surely deify them or endow them with the character of cultural heroes depicted in terracotta figurines and who were immortalized in monumental stone sculptures”.13
In other words, the physical characteristics of the individuals shown below (broad chubby noses and thick lips. We cannot see their kinky hair because it’s covered up) are alien to the Ancient Native American (the Amerindian). The numbers may have been more significant than he thinks.
Can we drop the mike?
*I specify “African Black People” because Black People from Asia and the Pacific (Papuans (New Guineans), Native Australians, Fijians, and other Melanesian people) are viewed somewhat differently. For instance, the Mormon Church doctrine that Black People could not be part of the Mormon Priesthood (which they changed recently) applied only to African Blacks, not to Fijians and other black Melanesians.
§Interestingly during the first half of the 1600’s, before the institution of slavery became entrenched in the English colonies in America, black indentured servants interacted with white indentured servants on the basis of equality as evidenced by black-white unions and marriages not being proscribed. This would change during the latter half of the 1600’s as chattel slavery became entrenched and legalized.
References & Citations
- Von Wutheran, Alexander (1975). Unexpected faces in Ancient America: The historical testimony of Pre-Columbian artist (1500 B. C. – 1500 A. D.), p. xiv
- Von Wuthenau, p. 70.
- Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmec_colossal_heads
- Van Sertima, Ivan (1976). They came before Columbus: the African presence in Ancient America. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, pp.145-155.
- Love, David (December 14, 2015). Mexico officially recognizes 1.38 million Afro-Mexicans in the National Census, as Black People fight against racism and invisibility throughout Latin America. Atlanta Black Star. Accessed at https://atlantablackstar.com/2015/12/14/mexico-officially-recognizes-1-38-million-afro-mexicans-in-the-national-census-as-black-people-fight-against-racism-and-invisibility-throughout-latin-america/.
- Von Wuthenau, p. 136.
- Von Wuthenau, p. 58.
- Von Wuthenau, p. 77.
- Von Wuthenau, p. 146.
- Van Sertima, pp. 156-157.
- Van Sertima, p. 157.
- Von Wuthenau, p. 195.
There are 7 different faces here. The helmets they are wearing are Egyptian.