Ivan Gladstone Van Sertima (26 January 1935 – 25 May 2009) was a Guyanese-born associate professor of African 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, 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, and dismissed as Afrocentric pseudoarchaeology and pseudohistory to the effect of “robbing native American cultures”.
Van Sertima was born in Kitty Village, near Georgetown, in what was then the colony of British Guiana (present-day Guyana); 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. 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.
He published his They Came Before Columbus in 1976, as a Rutgers graduate student. The book deals mostly with his arguments for an African origin of Mesoamerican culture in the Western Hemisphere. Published by Random House rather than an academic press, They Came Before Columbus 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, Current Anthropology, in 1997.
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. Also 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 loss of such knowledge. 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). 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’.”
Van Sertima’s work on Olmec civilization has been criticised by Mesoamerican 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 criticised 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 “diminishe[d] 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).
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.”
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”.
In 1981, They Came Before Columbus received the “Clarence L. Holte Literary Prize”. Sertima was inducted into the “Rutgers African-American Alumni Hall of Fame” in 2004.
Death and legacy
Van Sertima retired in 2006. He died on 25 May 2009 aged 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.