They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America – Ivan Van Sertima (1976)
I come from a small island named Puerto Rico. The people of Puerto Rico are a magnificent blend of native Taíno peoples, Spanish conquistadors, Africans, both slave and free, and a mish-mash of many other people who made their way to my little island. I grew up my whole life with family and friends whose skin-tones ranged from the darkest browns to the palest of peach-pink, yet all were Puerto Rican. While it is impossible to say that racism does not exist on my island, it is not the entrenched endemic racism found in Europe or the United States. My people come in all colors.
I say this because when my family moved to the USA in 1981 I began to read and study American schoolbooks. In those texts, it was a given that the superior European (i.e. White) brought civilization, culture, science, and art to the New World, a land supposedly filled with backwards savages that could barely subsist, much less create amazing civilizations and engage in worldwide trade. I found this so stupid, ignorant, and patently absurd. Consider the fact that millions upon millions of humans lived throughout the Caribbean and the Americas for tens of thousands of years, with various high civilizations matching or dwarfing the achievements of contemporary cultures in Africa, Europe, and Asia. For a textbook to say a small group of Spanish and Portuguese mercenary seamen led by a syphilitic and deeply ignorant Columbus “discovered” the entirety of the New World is plain false. It aggrandizes a grade-A asshole and diminishes the soul and genius of everyone in the New World.
Some of the greatest anthropological discoveries made in the New World seem to point to an influence from outside the New World centuries and even millennia before the travels of Columbus. One would think that such finds would resonate in the literature of world history as examples of the ingenuity and resilience of the human spirit. There is one problem, however. The peoples that made contact with the New World between 600 BC and 1400 AD were Africans, dark-skinned people, and most of the researchers and historians, themselves raised under the blanket racist idea that white Europeans created all that is civilization and science and art in the world, could not bring themselves to accept that Africans could cross the Atlantic Ocean safely. Africa not only fostered civilizations the magnitude of anything in Europe, they essentially created everything we hold to be the modern world. Our civil and religious systems, our science and technology, our knowledge of animal husbandry, our ability to create agriculture, and so much more came directly from the heart of Africa. Only the blind idiot racism of European historians could deceive them from these facts. Not only were African’s contributions to the world dismissed as accidental, many of their achievements were, instead, assigned to later, whiter civilizations, as if Africa was not the mother of all humanity.
Into this world, in 1976, Ivan Van Sertima released this amazing book, They Came Before Columbus. From what I have read of its reception by academia, many established historians were deeply butt-hurt! They could not imagine that Africans had the ability, much less the organization, to engage in trans-Atlantic travel. Much of the contemporary criticism of this book sought to dismiss it entirely based on one or two small and quite meaningless points of contention. Imagine you drawing a huge map of the continental United States using all your available research and someone shoots it all down because you failed to include some minor river or village. Ridiculous. However, this is exactly what Mr. Van Sertima experienced. Non-white people of the world are used to being dismissed based on superficial bullshit. Shit don’t change.
Based on countless archeological, ethnographic, agricultural, and historical examples, Van Sertima shows that there were at least 2 periods where Africans came to the Americas, either as castaways on the trans-Atlantic current, or as members of large expeditionary forces sent by great African kings. The oldest of these took place around 600BC, and coincided with the rise of the Olmec culture, from which most of the later native civilizations sprang. Everyone is familiar with the giant Olmec heads, carved in basalt, which seem to portray Africa/Negro individuals. Around this time, the Olmec people started creating step pyramids similar to the ones created in the Nubian kingdom that preceded the Egyptian dynasties.
A second wave of African immigration to the New World occurred sometime between 1000 AD and 1200 AD, which coincides with the histories provided by West African peoples. They spoke of massive fleets sent out from western Africa heading west to a new world. This may seem weird, based on the false notions we have been taught that state the African was backwards, ignorant, and lacking in technological knowhow. In fact, the desert-wandering Africans were the first people that understood navigation by the stars, and how to use both longitude and latitude to determine location. Their ideas and instruments disseminated into the ancient Mediterranean by the Phoenicians who traded with these highly advanced African civilizations. The racism barely hidden in the history books tries to portray the Phoenicians as the true innovators, relegating the Africans who sailed with the Phoenicians to slave or menial status. Racism is a bitch and demeans everyone involved.
I wish I could write more and more about this book, but it is better read that talked about. Much of the subject matter and topics covered in this book has been ignored since its publication, as the European historians seek to keep light-skinned folks as the primary drivers of human innovation. It is a self-serving load of shit. Any new finds that corroborate the African presence in the Americas are either ignored, hidden, or portrayed in such a light as to seem unimportant. Even in the very first voyages of Columbus and his Spanish mercenaries, the natives would talk of dark-skinned visitors from the “morning,” (the East, where the Sun rises). In Central America and the coast of South America, the native peoples talked of villages of dark-skinned men that came by boat over the water.
Even today, much of the world lives under the lie that the ancient Egyptians were not Black Africans, but light-skinned people. The (white) world cannot accept that the original Egyptians, the builders of the great Pyramids, the creators of a religion and culture that lasted for millennia, were dark-skinned, Negro Africans. The fact that Nubia, and Nubian kings, ruled over what is now Egypt is forgotten, or relegated to a mere happenstance. The empire of Mali, on the west of Africa, was, in medieval times, larger, more prosperous, and far more advanced in every way than the contemporary Holy Roman Empire. They had the resources, capabilities, and knowledge to sail around all of Africa, the Mediterranean, and, as Ivan Van Sertima has shown, all the way to the New World. This is something to celebrate alongside all other great human achievements, but racism and prejudice prevents us from doing so. What a shame. I highly recommend this book.
(This book is available for download here: https://afrikin.org/books/Ivan-Van-Sertima-They-Came-Before-Columbus.pdf )