Did Africans travel to America before Christopher Columbus? On the face of it most folks might consider that claim to be rubbish, but in the 1970s a young radical Guyanese professor who was educated at the University of London and once taught at Rutgers University and lectured at NASA said not so fast. He published his radical idea in a book appropriately called They Came Before Columbus. His controversial book caused waves throughout the academic world and was attacked by many, but this did not deter Van Sertima in fact it made him more steadfast. In fact Dr. Van Sertima would go on to claim that Africans not only sailed to America before Columbus once but actually twice. Africans would first set sail under the leadership of the Egyptians starting around 1200 B.C. According to Van Sertima evidence of their arrival can be found in the huge stone heads of the Olmec civilization in Mexico.
The Olmec are known to historians as the “mother culture” of the Americas because they are the oldest preceding both the more famous Maya and Aztec. What is strange about the Olmec civilizations is the 17 huge stone heads that they built some as tall as 10 feet and weighing as much as 40 tons, but it is not the sheer height and weight that creates wonder but it is the features that look more African than they do Native American. Many of the stone heads have broad noses, full lips, and even in some cases braided cornrow hairstyles.
Indeed the strange features were striking enough that in 1862 when Jose Melgar discovered the first head in Tres Zapotes Mexico he said “What astonished me was the Ethiopic type represented.” When Smithsonian archaeologist Matthew Sterling unearthed the first head he said “The features are bold and it is amazingly Negroid in character.” Dr. Van Sertima believes that the Egyptians sailed to America around 1200 B.C and once arriving in America they influenced the Olmec culture. In fact both the Egyptian and Olmec culture have a lot in common, too much in fact to be ruled as coincidental. Both the Egyptians and Olmec built pyramids, and wrote using glyphs. People forget there are pyramids in Mexico until they are reminded of places like Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan, however pyramid making in Mexico started with the Olmec not the Maya. The Olmec pyramid at La Venta, Mexico was aligned to one of the huge African looking stone heads as to foreshadow someone willing to make the connections between the two continents.
African looking stone heads being part of the same mother culture that begins pyramid making in America all seems so much more than a strange coincidence. There are other isolated pieces of evidence that seem odd when separated but when they come together they make a convincing statement about Pre-Columbian voyages. Among the Inca in Peru they once practiced a form of brain surgery exactly like the brain surgery found in ancient Egypt known as trepanning. Dr. Svetla Balbanova of Germany has shown that the use of cocaine a plant indigenous to South America being found in the tombs, stomachs, and hair of Egyptian mummies. One wants to easily brush that aside until they realize that cocaine or the coca plant did not grow in Africa, so how did it get there if not for Pre-Columbian travel. The anomalies like trepanning and cocaine use appeals to the common sense in most folks and reminds us of the words of Harlem Renaissance writer J.A. Rogers “If we say that the Negro wasn’t here before Columbus, why the typically Negro faces on the monuments.”
People have many prejudices about African people, and their abilities because of these prejudices they find it hard to believe anyone other than Europeans sailed across the Atlantic Ocean before Columbus. This is why the world was stunned when Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl in the 1970s set out to prove that Africans before Christ had the technological know-how to sail across the Atlantic. Heyerdahl employed a group of Africans from Chad to construct a boat using papyrus reeds from Lake Tana Ethiopia. This is the exact same kind of reed the ancient Egyptians used to build their boats. They appropriately named their ship the RA and a second vessel the RA II after the Egyptian sun god bearing the same name. The RA II successfully sailed from West Africa to Barbados in 57 days proving to the world that it could be done.
As Dr. Van Sertima mentioned in his books They Came Before Columbus and Early America Revisited, the Egyptians were not the only Africans to sail to America before Columbus, but another group of Africans the Malians also set sail to America in the year 1310. In fact the conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa upon believing he "discovered" the Isthmus of Panama and the Pacific Ocean was amazed to see Negros already living deep in the jungle. Muslim writers like Al-Umari record an African king by the name of Abubakari II brother to the famous king of Mali Mansa Musa setting sail across the Atlantic Ocean with 2000 ships. One is reminded that Christopher Columbus only set sail using three ships, and furthermore this event was recorded more than a hundred years before Columbus. Obscured events like this are often missing from high school history books, and often leave students in wonder shaking their heads asking the question, how come they never taught us that?
Ivan Van Sertima. They Came Before Columbus. 1976. Random House.
Ivan Van Sertima. African Presence in Early America. 1992. Transaction Publishers.
J.A. Rogers. Africa’s Gift To America. 1961.
Alexander Von Wuthenau. Unexpected Faces In Ancient America. 1975. Crown Publishers.
James W. Loewen. Lies My Teacher Told Me. 1996. Touchstone.