Ivan Van Sertima

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Ivan Van Sertima[1]

Ivan Van Sertima was a Guyanese historian, linguist, and a associate professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University in the United States. He was best known for his Olmec alternative origin speculations, a brand of pre-Columbian contact theory. [2]

Early Life

Ivan Van Sertima was born in Kitty Village, near Georgetown, Guyana. In 1964, Van Sertima married Maria Nagy and together they adopted two boys. He then attended the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, graduating in 1969 as an honor student with a Bachelor of Arts degree in African languages and literature. In 1970, Van Sertima began his graduate work at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. After his divorce from Maria, he married Jacqueline Pattern in 1984 and gained two stepdaughters. [3] 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 honors. During his studies, he learned Swahili and Hungarian. From 1957 to 1959, worked 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. In doing field work in Africa, he compiled a dictionary of Swahili legal terms in 1967. In 1970 Van Sertima immigrated to the United States, where he entered Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for graduate work. He published his They Came Before Columbus 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. The book, published by Random House rather than an academic press, was a bestseller 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 criticized in detail in an academic journal in 1997. [4]


The main pieces of evidence presented by Van Sertima are the monumental carved basalt Olmec heads. The people claimed by Van Sertima and other Afrocentrists to have influenced the Olmecs (and to be the models for the heads) are Nubians or Egyptians, that is, North and East Africans, whereas the slave ancestors of African-Americans came primarily from tropical West Africa. These groups are very different and do not look alike. Some Olmec heads are dark not because they represent black people but because they were made of dark stone. These heads represent an enormous amount of work, having been transported from quarries as much as 70 kilometers away without the use of wheels or beasts of burden and then carved with stone tools, bronze and iron being unknown. The implication that Afrocentrists draw from this is that the Egyptian civilization was so superior that the Olmecs regarded its "black" representatives almost as gods and dropped whatever they were doing to devote enormous effort over many years to quarrying, transporting, and carving their likenesses. In 1976, Ivan Van Sertima proposed that New World civilizations those of ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, India, were strongly influenced by diffusion from Africa. The first and most important contact, he argued, was between Nubians and Olmecs in 700 B.C., and it was followed by other contacts from Mali in A. D. 1300. The launching of the expedition is recorded by Arab historian Ibn Fadl Allah al-Omari, according to Van Sertima. Van Sertima answers that Africans were indeed sailors, that a division of Negro sea captains and mariners is reported to have been in the Egyptian navy of the 19th dynasty and the East Africans sailed between their countries and China in the 13th century. Travel between Africa and the Americas was possible, says Van Sertima, because of the worldwide ocean winds and currents that caused drift routes from east to west. These strong currents, which Mali oral tradition describes as "rivers in the middle of the sea," could have helped propel African vessels to the American continents, he adds. [5] This theory has spread widely in the African American community, both lay and scholarly, but it has never been evaluated at length by Mesoamericanists. The colossal Olmec heads, which resemble a stereotypical ‘‘Negroid,’’ were carved hundreds of years before the arrival of the presumed models. Additionally, Nubians, who come from a desert environment and have long, high noses, do not resemble their supposed ‘‘portraits.’’ Claims for the diffusion of pyramid building and mummification are also fallacious. [6]


Van Sertima also discussed many of these topics in his several published books including Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern (1983), Black Women in Antiquity (1984), The African Presence in Early Asia (1985), Great Black Leaders, Ancient and Modern (1988), and Egypt: The Child of Africa (1994). His research also discussed the early African civilizations which had disappeared from history. In 1999, Van Sertima republished, in the African Renaissance, earlier essays which discussed the scientific contributions of Africans. He also published critical essays questioning the work of previous historians and authors about the African continent. [3] As a literary critic, he is the author of Caribbean Writers, a collection of critical essays on the Caribbean novel. He is also the author of several major literary reviews published in Denmark, India, Britain and the United States. He was honored for his work in this field by being asked by the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy to nominate candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature from 1976-1980. He has also been honored as an historian of world repute by being asked to join UNESCO's International Commission for Rewriting the Scientific and Cultural History of Mankind. As a linguist, he has published essays on the dialect of the Sea Islands off the Georgia Coast. He is also the compiler of the Swahili Dictionary of Legal Terms, based on his field work in Tanzania, East Africa, in 1967. [7]

They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America (1976)

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 Mesoamerican scholarship, and has been dismissed as Afrocentric pseudoarchaeology and pseudohistory to the effect of "robbing native American cultures." In this book, Ivan Van Sertima explores his theory that Africans made landfall and had significant influence on the native peoples of Mesoamerica, primarily the Olmec civilization. Van Sertima accomplishes this through chapters relying heavily on dramatic storytelling. This technique, as well as the ambiguity of the evidence Van Sertima used, have led to the rejection of his work as pseudoscience or pseudoarchaeology. This work was published by Random House and did not go through a peer review process. Van Sertima reached larger audiences through chapters narrated by figures of the past, including Christopher Columbus and the Mali king Abu Bakr II. In doing this, primary source anecdotes are often the evidence cited by Van Sertima combined with inference and exaggeration, though he implies to his readers that the narrative is based in fact. In Chapter 5, called "Among the Quetzalcoatls", Van Sertima narrates the arrival of Abu Bakr II to an Aztec civilization in Mexico in 1311, describing the Mali king as "a true child of the sun burned dark by its rays" in direct and explicit comparison to the Aztec "sun god" Quetzalcoatl, as Van Sertima writes. This interaction is not rooted in historical evidence and Van Sertima does not offer a cited source to back up his narrative. This is one of many examples of Van Sertima's theories that Mesoamerican mythologies are based on Pre-Columbian African contact theories. Between narrative chapters, Van Sertima develops his main claims about African contact with the Americas in an essay style and includes images of artifacts, which primarily consist of photographs of ceramic heads that Van Sertima says have African features. Van Sertima also includes photos of an African man and woman for comparison, but he does not include pictures of inhabitants of the area where the artifacts were found. Van Sertima focuses specifically on the Olmec colossal heads, saying that the characteristics of the stone faces are "indisputably" African, while Mesoamerican experts such as Richard Diehl disregards this claim, as the statues are stylized and generally accepted as representing native Mesoamericans. [6] On July 7, 1987 Dr. Van Sertima appeared before a United States Congressional Committee to challenge the Columbus myth of the discovery of America. In November 1991 he defended his thesis in an address to the Smithsonian Institute. In this arena Ivan Van Sertima emerged as an undefeated champion. [8] According to Van Sertima's hypothesis, the Nubian rulers of ancient Egypt (25th dynasty, 712-664 B.C.) organized an expedition with the help of the Phoenicians to obtain various commodities, including iron, from sources on the Atlantic coast of North Africa, Europe, and the British Isles during the late 8th or early 7th century B.C. This expedition allegedly sailed from the Nile Delta or the Levant across the Mediterranean, through the Pillars of Hercules, and down the Atlantic coast of North Africa, where it was caught in some current or storm that sent it across the Atlantic to the Americas. Following the prevailing wind and ocean currents, the expedition allegedly sailed or drifted westward from some unspecified location in the eastern Caribbean or the Bahamas to the Gulf Coast of Mexico, where it came into contact with the receptive but inferior Olmecs. According to the scenario at this point, the Olmecs presumably accepted the leaders of the Nubian/Egyptian expedition as their rulers ("black warrior dynasts"), and these individuals, in turn, created, inspired, or influenced the creation of the Olmec civilization, which in turn influenced Monte Albán, Teotihuacan, the Classic Maya, and all the other Mesoamerican civilizations that followed. In Van Sertima's scenario, the Nubians became the models for the colossal stone heads which the Olmecs produced in the years that followed the alleged contact. They also presided over a mixed crew of voyagers that included Egyptians, Phoenicians, and "several women." The Nubians subsequently provided the impetus for the building of pyramids and ceremonial centers and introduced a number of technological innovations and practices (mummification, cire-perdue metallurgy, the symbolic use of purple murex dye, weaving, etc.) which presumably influenced Mesoamerican religion, mythology, customs, and even the calendar. [6]


Ivan Van Sertima and his work received criticism by several Mesoamerican academics. Van Sertima's work has been strongly criticized by opposing academics, 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. In 1997 academics in a Journal of Current Anthropology article criticized in detail many elements of They Came Before Columbus (1976). 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". 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. 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 of "diminished the real achievements of Native American culture" by his claims of African origin for them. 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. Instead, Van Sertima replied to his critics in his journal volume published as Early America Revisited (1998). [4] In his review for The New York Times, Glyn Daniel, who was an archaeology professor at Cambridge University, he is critical of Sertima and Barry Fell who is another anthropologist that agreed with Sertima's theories. In his review he writes, "Why do responsible and accredited professors write such ignorant rubbish? Fell and Van Sertima are deluded scholars; their readers must exercise care and caution before sharing unreservedly their delusions. If one is trying to build a new ancient history of pre‐Columbian America, it must be based on well‐ argued theories backed by indispensable facts—Professors Fell and Van Sertima give us badly argued theories based on fantasies." [9]


An expert on African authors, he served on the Nobel Prize committee from 1976 to 1980 to nominate candidates for the literature prize. Van Sertima was the founder and editor of The Journal of African Civilizations, which published several major anthologies that helped change the way African history and culture is taught and studied. He described the journal as "the only historical journal in the English-speaking world which focuses on the heartland rather than on the periphery of African civilizations” and “…therefore, removes the “primitive” from the centre stage it has occupied in Eurocentric histories and anthropologies of the African.” [8] Van Sertima retired in 2006. He passed away on May 25, 2009, at the age of 74. 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. [4] [10]


  1. Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, The Journal of African Civilizations, Inc., 2017, http://www.journalofafricancivilizations.com/VanSertima.
  2. Peoplepill. “About Ivan Van Sertima: British Africanist in New Jersey (1935 - 2009): Biography, Facts, Career, Wiki, Life.” Peoplepill, 2021, https://peoplepill.com/people/ivan-van-sertima.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Johnson, Jennifer. “Ivan Van Sertima (1935-2009).” Black Past, 23 Sept. 2018, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/sertima-ivan-van-1935-2009/.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Reece, Maggie. “Ivan Van-Sertima - Anthropologist, Linguist, Educator and Author.” Guyana Graphic, 14 Jan. 2012, https://www.guyanagraphic.com/content/ivan-van-sertima-anthropologist-linguist-educator-and-author.
  5. Haslip‐Viera, Gabriel, et al. “Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertima’s Afrocentricity and the Olmecs.” Current Anthropology, vol. 38, no. 3, [The University of Chicago Press, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research], 1997, pp. 419–41, https://doi.org/10.1086/204626.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Haslip‐Viera, Gabriel, et al. “Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertima’s Afrocentricity and the Olmecs.” Current Anthropology, vol. 38, no. 3, [The University of Chicago Press, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research], 1997, pp. 419–41, https://doi.org/10.1086/204626.
  7. Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, The Journal of African Civilizations, Inc., 2017, http://www.journalofafricancivilizations.com/VanSertima.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Stabroek NewsMay. “Tribute to Dr. Ivan Van Sertima-Great Man and Scholar: A Celebration at the University of Guyana.” Stabroek News, 9 May 2016, https://www.stabroeknews.com/2016/05/09/features/in-the-diaspora/tribute-dr-ivan-van-sertima-great-man-scholar-celebration-university-guyana/.
  9. Daniel, Glyn. “America B.C.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Mar. 1977, https://www.nytimes.com/1977/03/13/archives/america-bc-ancient-settlers-in-the-new-world-by-barry-fell.html.
  10. Keller, Karen. “Rutgers University Professor Jolted Academia with Pre-Columbian Assertions.” NJ, 5 June 2009, https://www.nj.com/news/mustsee/2009/06/rutgers_professor_jolted_acade.html.