Clyde Winters Goes in Search of Elephants in Ancient America, and the Africans Who Brought Them There
It’s almost touching when a fringe history site drags out one of the classics. After so much discussion of sexually abusive aliens, white ethnonationalism, and absurdly complex religious conspiracies, there is something refreshing about seeing hoary chestnuts from a simpler time resurrected. That’s why I’ve been finding it difficult to get too worked up about Clyde Winters’s classical Afrocentrism in his recent Ancient Origins articles. He harks back to Ivan Van Sertima and an earlier era when crappy evidence and absurd claims had a certain level of charm rather than foaming, animalistic rage. Afrocentrism is, of course, the mirror image of white ethnonationalism, but the early works in the field took their inspiration more from the goofball frivolity of 1950s and 1960s UFO and “ancient mystery” books than the dark, angry, and wrathful conspiracy theories of today.
In his latest article, Winters brings back some of the early claims about elephants in the Americas that were a staple of 1960s and 1970s fringe history books, beginning with the so-called “Elephant Slabs” of New Mexico, featured in Brad Steiger’s 1974 book Mysteries of Time and Space, from which Winters draws much of his evidence.
The “Elephant Slabs” are tablets depicting what seem to be drawings of elephants. They were brought to the Arizona State Museum in 1950 by a man who alleged that he unearthed them in 1910. Experts believe them to be hoaxes, but fringe historians have used them as proof of everything from an invasion from India to Phoenician migrations to the literal truth of the Book of Mormon’s mention of elephants in Ether 9:19.
Winters, of course, does not wish to follow any of the earlier fringe interpretations that would favor Eurasian groups. Instead, he proposes that the hieroglyphic-style symbols appearing on the tablets are actually a form of the Vai script of western Africa. This requires layer after layer of assumption, but we can quickly dismiss the notion when we recall that the Vai script was invented around 1830 to represent the Vai language (a Mande tongue) and may have been modelled on the Cherokee script invented shortly before. Winters projects the Vai script back to 1200 BCE (in this article) or 4000 BCE (in earlier work) based on geometric symbols appearing on rock art, and he offers an unusual methodology of choosing to use the Vai script to read into it Maninke syllables of a different branch of the Mande language tree. While the syllabary of the Vai language does not include picture writing, Winters chooses to interpret symbols that bear no resemblance to Vai symbols, like the elephant, as picture writing for complete words.
It should go without saying that the characters on the Elephant Slab that he identifies with symbols from the Vai Syllabary bear no resemblance to each other. To take one example, he identifies an angular symbol resembling a stylized backward “P” as the syllable ki, which in the Vai Syllabary resembles a curvilinear “G.” The two sets of symbols appear entirely unrelated, but I suppose Winters gets to make the claim that he is proposing a proto-Vai script that allows him to alter the shapes as he wishes, without the tiresome need for facts and proof.
From this, Winters claims he can translate the Elephant Slabs as Maninke inscriptions, and according to him they tell the story of a lament for elephants that grew sick and died in a drought followed by a report of a barbecue of the elephants. The last sentence he gives this way: “Uncultivated land, hunt the birds, cook the elephant (it is) easy to roast, grow on the flat terrain the maize (in) arid uncultivated land. There are also bears.” (He takes the last character of the last line, a picture of what seems to be a cat, for a bear.) Even in his translation, the text doesn’t make good or clear sense, continuing the proud fringe history tradition of discovering that world traveling ancient people were utterly incoherent to the point of confusion.
Winters also purposely misunderstands a passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (Query VI), which I will give here before discussing:
It is well known, that on the Ohio, and in many parts of America further north, tusks, grinders, and skeletons of unparalleled magnitude, are found in great numbers, some lying on the surface of the earth, and some a little below it. A Mr. Stanley, taken prisoner near the mouth of the Tanisee [Tennessee], relates, that after being transferred through several tribes, from one to another, he was at length carried over the mountains west of the Missouri to a river which runs westwardly; that these bones abounded there, and that the natives described to him the animal to which they belonged as still existing in the northern parts of their country; from which description he judged it to be an elephant. Bones of the same kind have been lately found, some feet below the surface of the earth, in salines opened on the North Holston, a branch of the Tanisee, about the latitude of 36½° north. From the accounts published in Europe, I suppose it to be decided that these are of the same kind with those found in Siberia.
Jefferson goes on to dispute the identification of the bones with those of living elephants for reasons he elaborates in detail.
Winters takes Stanley’s claim at face value and concludes therefore that elephants were alive in the northern part of what is now the United States (then Spanish Louisiana). Winters fails to note that Stanley reported the rumor of the creature’s existence at a remove—it was hearsay among his informants—and he purposely omits Jefferson’s analysis, which clearly marks these bones as belonging to the mammoth. The myth of the mammoth’s continued existence was almost certainly derived from attempts to explain the fossil bones among people who did not know about fossilization and extinction. (Europeans didn’t quite grasp the concept at the time, either.)
For Winters, based on his own translation of the Elephant Slabs, the elephants were the legacy of a lost voyage of African people, who brought them on their ships across the Atlantic, marched them across the continent, and left not a trace of them behind except for the Elephant Slabs and some ambiguous rock art.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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