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Ivan Van Sertima
Ivan Van Sertima

Kitty Village, Guyana, South America
CitizenshipUnited States
Notable work
Journal of African Civilizations

Ivan Gladstone Van Sertima (26 January 1935 - 25 May 2009) was a historian, linguist and anthropologist at Rutgers University in the United States.[1] He was noted for his controversial theory of pre-Columbian contact between Afrika and the Americas, which he published in his book They Came Before Columbus (1976). Scholar, critic, educator, and poet. Press and broadcasting officer, Government Information Office, Georgetown, Guyana, 1956-59; freelance broadcaster and writer, London, England, 1959-69; broadcaster, Central Office of Information, London, 1969-70; instructor, Rutgers University, 1970-72; assistant professor, Rutgers, 1972-79; wrote best-selling book, They Came Before Columbus, 1977; associate professor of African studies, 1979-; numerous other writings; has edited many books on Afrikan civilizations and their influence.

Early life and education

Ivan Van Sertima was born in Kitty Village, Guyana, South America on January 26, 1935. He was educated at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University where he graduated with honors. From 1957 to 1959, he served as a Press and Broadcasting Officer in the Guyana Information Services. During the decade of the 1960s, he broadcasted weekly from Britain to both Afrika and the Caribbean. He came to the United States in 1970, where he completed his post graduate studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Dr. Van Sertima began his teaching career as an instructor at Rutgers in 1972.

Van Sertima was a literary critic, a linguist, and an anthropologist, and has made a name for himself in all three fields however the cornerstone of Dr. Van Sertima's legacy will probably be his authorship of They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America in which he argues "The African presence in America before Columbus is of importance not only to Afrikan and American history, but to the history of world civilizations. The Afrikan presence is proven by stone heads, terra cottas, skeletons, artifacts, techniques and inscriptions, by oral traditions and documented history, by botanical, linguistic and cultural data."

On July 7, 1987 Dr. Van Sertima appeared before a Congressional Committee to challenge the Columbus myth. In November 1991 he defended his thesis in an address to the Smithsonian Institute. van Sertima was a retired Professor of African studies in the Department of Africana Studies at Rutgers University, New Jersey.


Van Sertima became Associate Professor of African Studies at Rutgers in the Department of Africana Studies. In his work, he addressed topics in literature, linguistics, anthropology and history. He wrote that the kings of the 25th Dynasty of Egypt were Nubians, as recounted in his They Came Before Columbus (1976), dealing mostly with his claims of Afrikan origin of Mesoamerican culture in the Western Hemisphere.[2] The book, published by Random House rather than an academic press, was a bestseller and achieved widespread fame for his claims of prehistoric Afrikan 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.[3]

In 1979, Van Sertima founded the Journal of African Civilizations, which he exclusively edited and published for decades. The journal is not included in a current volume on significant academic journals of the century.[4] He published several annual compilations, volumes of the journal dealing with various topics of Afrikan history.

Van Sertima discussed Afrikan scientific contributions in an essay for the volume African Renaissance, published in 1999 (he had first published the essay in 1983).[5] This was a record of the conference held in Johannesburg, South Afrika, in September 1998 on the theme of the Afrikan Renaissance. His article, "The Lost Sciences of Africa: An Overview" (1983), makes claims for early Afrikan advances in metallurgy, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, engineering, agriculture, navigation, medicine and writing. He claimed that higher learning, in Afrika as elsewhere, was the preserve of elites in the centres of civilizations, rendering them vulnerable in the event (as happened in Afrika) of the destruction of those centers and the disappearance of the knowledges.[5]

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".[6]

van Sertima's Theory: Afrikan Voyages to America

Enrolling in a master's program at Rutgers University in New Jersey, van Sertima was hired there as an instructor in 1970 in the school's new Afrikan Studies department. He has continued to teach there ever since, winning promotions to assistant professor in 1972 and associate professor in 1979, the latter coming after he received his M.A. degree. The bulk of van Sertima's time in the 1970s, however, was occupied with the writing of They Came Before Columbus, a massive work whose evidence for the pre-Columbian African discovery of the New World encompassed many historical subjects and fields of knowledge.

Van Sertima's central argument was that the Nubian rulers of ancient Egypt organized expeditions for the gathering of natural resources. One of these expeditions crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed on the Caribbean coast. The Olmecs, predecessors to the Maya and the other great cultures of Central America, created their large ceremonial heads in depiction and in honor of these African invaders. Van Sertima supported his thesis with other claims of African influence on New World cultures, involving the presence of certain cultivated crops, including cotton, and of Egyptian practices such as pyramid-building and mummification of the dead.

They Came Before Columbus, which was published in 1977 on the heels of Alex Haley's massive best-seller Roots, was hugely successful, not only among Afrikan American readers, but with the American public in general. The Book-of-the-Month Club made it a featured selection, and van Sertima became a widely sought-after lecturer. Van Sertima, quoted in the volume Caribbean Writers, pointed to some of the reasons for the book's resonance: "Many people feel a certain kind of happiness when they read my book. A certain kind of shadow lifts. The psyche of blacks is raised. No man who believes his history began with slavery can be a healthy man. If you lift that shadow, you help repair that damage." Van Sertima's work began to be featured in university Afrikan Studies courses, as well as Afrikan-centered curricula that were beginning to emerge in urban elementary and high schools.


Van Sertima's work has been strongly criticized by academics who describe his claims to be ill-founded and false. In 1997 academics in a Journal of Current Anthropology article criticized in detail many elements of They Came Before Columbus (1976).[3] 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 Afrikan diffusion as responsible for prehistoric Olmec culture (in present-day Mexico). They noted that no "genuine Afrikan 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 Afrikan; the Nubians whom Van Sertima had claimed as their originators do not resemble these "portraits".[3] They further noted that in the 1980s, Van Sertima had changed his timeline of Afrikan influence, suggesting that Afrikans 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.[3]

They further called "fallacious" his claims that Afrikans 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 Afrikan origin for them.[3]

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.[3] Instead, Van Sertima replied to his critics in his journal volume published as Early America Revisited (1998).[7]

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".[8]

In response to Daniel's review, Clarence Weiant (1897-1986) wrote a letter to the New York Times supporting Van Sertima's work. Weiant had worked first as a chemical engineer (1910-1945)[9] and chiropractor.[10] Following his B.S. in anthropology in 1937 from Columbia University, he worked in excavation of Olmec heads in Mexico in 1938[10], 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.[9] Weiant wrote in a letter published in May 1977 in the New York Times that Van Sertima's work was "a summary of six or seven years of meticulous research based upon archeology, egyptology, Afrikan 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."[citation needed] Weiant earned a doctorate in archeology from Columbia in 1943. He also pursued a career in parapsychology (1959-1978).[9]

Marriage and family

Van Sertima married Maria Nagy in 1964; they adopted two sons. After their divorce, he remarried in 1984 to Jacqueline L. Patten, who had two daughters.


Van Sertima retired in 2006. He died on 25 May 2009 aged 74.[11] 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.[12]


  • "They Came Before Columbus", New York: Random House, 1976
  • Essay in Malegapuru William Makgoba, ed., African Renaissance, Sandton and Cape Town, South Africa: Mafube and Tafelberg, 1999
  • Runoko Rashidi and Ivan Van Sertima, ed., African Presence in Early Asia, New Brunswick, NJ: The Journal of African Civilizations, 1985 (reprint 1995)

He edited the following books, compilations of articles published in The Journal of African Civilizations, and contributed about one essay per volume.

  • "Van Sertima before Congress: The Columbus Myth", United States. Congress. House. Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. Subcommittee on Census and Population; Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission. Highland Park, NJ: Audio Division, Journal of African Civilizations, 1988

Legacy and honors

  • 1981 - Clarence L. Holte Literary Prize for They Came Before Columbus, Twenty-First Century Foundation [13]
  • 2004 - Inducted into Rutgers African-American Alumni Hall of Fame [14]

See also


  1. "Ivan van Sertima", Rutgers African-American Alumni Hall of Fame Inductees (2004)]
  2. Ivan Van Stertima, They Came Before Columbus, Random House, 1976, p. 125
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Gabriel Haslip-Viera; Bernard Ortiz de Montellano; Warren Barbour, "Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertima's Afrocentricity and the Olmecs", Current Anthropology, Vol.38 (3), June 1997, accessed 20 January 2009
  4. Finnegan, Gregory A., Joyce L. Ogburn, and J. Christina Smith (2002). "Journals of the Century in Anthropology and Archaeology", Journals of the Century, editor Tony Stankus, New York: Haworth Press, pp. 141–150, ISBN 0-7890-1133-6, OCLC 49403459, accessed 2 Jan 2011
  5. 5.0 5.1 Van Sertima, "The Lost Sciences of Africa: An Overview", Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, Journal of African Civilizations, Vol. 5, Issues 1-2, New Jersey: Transactions Publishers, 1983
  6. Jack Sirica, "Native Opposition to a 1492 Party", Newsday, August 4, 1987
  7. Ivan Van Sertima, Early America Revisited, Journal of African Civilizations, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1998, pp. 143-152
  8. Dean R. Snow, "Martians & Vikings, Madoc & Runes: A seasoned campaigner’s look at the never-ending war between archaeological fact and archaeological fraud", American Heritage Magazine, Oct-Nov 1981, Vol. 32(6), accessed 21 Jan 2009
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 "Archaeologists & Scholars: Clarence Wolsey Weiant 1897 - 1986", Smithsonian Institution, 2011, accessed 2 Jan 2011
  10. 10.0 10.1 Joseph Keating Jr., "Remembering Clarence Weiant", Dynamic Chiropractic, 4 September 2001, Vol. 18, Issue 19, accessed 2 Jan 2011
  11. "Historian Dr. Ivan Van Sertima Passes", Black Entertainment Network
  12. KAREN KELLER, "Ivan Van Sertima, inspirational Afrocentric historian: Rutgers professor jolted academia with pre-Columbian assertions", New Jersey Star-Ledger (Archive), 5 June 2009, accessed 2 January 2011
  13. "Van Sertima Wins Prize for Book on Africa; Van Sertima Wins $7,500 Book Prize", New York Times, 8 March 1981, accessed 21 January 2009
  14. "Ivan van Sertima", Rutgers African-American Alumni Hall of Fame Inductees (2004), accessed 21 January 2009

External links