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Ivan Van-Sertima - Anthropologist, linguist, educator and author

Ivan Gladstone Van-Sertima

Ivan Gladstone Van-Sertima - (26 January 1935 - 25 May 2009) was an associate professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University in the United States.

He is 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 the African American community, both lay and scholarly", it was mostly ignored in Mesoamericanist scholarship, or else dismissed as Afrocentric pseudohistory to the effect of "robbing native American cultures.

Van Sertima was born in Karina Village, British Guiana (now Guyana), when Guyana was still a British colony; 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 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.

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, 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), makes claims for early African advances in metallurgy, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, engineering, agriculture, navigation, medicine and writing. He claimed that higher learning, in Africa as elsewhere, was the preserve of elites in the centers of civilizations, rendering them vulnerable in the event (as happened in Africa) of the destruction of those centers and the disappearance of the knowledges. Van Sertima discussed such "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 so-called African Renaissance.

After divorcing his first wife, Sertima remarried in 1984, to Jacqueline L. Patten, who had two daughters.

On July 7, 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 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.

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 "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 They Came Before Columbus, the archaeologist Glyn Daniel labeled 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 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 response to Daniel's review, archeologist and engineer Dr. Clarence Weiant (1897-1986) wrote a letter to the New York Times supporting Van Sertima's work. Following his B.S. in anthropology in 1937 from Columbia University, Weiant worked in excavation of Olmec heads in Mexico in 1938, and then as an assistant archeologist in 1939 for the first National Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution expedition to Tres Zapotes, Veracruz, where ceramics were discovered. Weiant's letter, published in May 1977 in the New York Times, asserted that Van Sertima's work was "a summary of six or seven years of meticulous research based upon archeology, 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 archeology for some forty years, I am thoroughly convinced of the soundness of Van Sertima's conclusions.

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.

As author

  • Caribbean Writers
  • 1976, They Came Before Columbus, New York: Random House.
  • 1999, Essay in Malegapuru
  • William Makgoba, ed., African Renaissance, Sandton and Cape Town, South Africa: Mafube and Tafelberg.

As editor

  • The Journal of African Civilizations (1979—2005)
  • Anthologies published by The Journal of African Civilizations (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers) 
  • Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern
  • African Presence in Early Europe
  • Great African Thinkers, Cheikh Anta Diop
  • Great Black Leaders: Ancient and Modern
  • Black Women in Antiquity
  • Cheikh Anta Diop, New Brunswick, NJ: The Journal of African Civilizations, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1988
  • 1988, "Van Sertima before Congress: The Columbus Myth, transcript of a speech of 7 July
  • 1987 before the US Congress Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission (Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. Subcommittee on Census and Population)
  • 1992, The Golden Age of the Moor
  • 1993, Egypt Revisited
  • 1998, Early America Revisited

As co-editor

  • With Runoko Rashidi, African Presence in Early Asia, New Brunswick, NJ
  • The Journal of African Civilizations, 1985 (reprint 1995)



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