If you read a “fact” in an alternative history book, you can be fairly certain of one thing: It won’t be true. In They Came before Columbus (1976) Ivan Van Sertima, for whom evidence exists solely as grist for polemic, claimed that the ancient Mexican and Egyptian calendars were substantively similar because a scholar, the Abbé Hervas, had written that
Van Sertima declines to note that the Abbé Hervas lived in the eighteenth century, and his discussion was a private letter sent to the cleric Francesco Saverio Clavigero (also known as Francisco Javier Clavijero Echegaray) and published in 1780 in The History of Mexico (p. 466, 1787 English trans.). He acknowledges this obliquely in the end notes (citing the 1804 edition), but does not mention the fact in the body text.
Van Sertima then manages to misunderstand Hervas despite having 200 years of advances of draw upon. He seems to think that the Egyptian calendar “began” on February 26, 747 BCE but does not seem to understand what is meant by this. Van Sertima seems to think that time began on that date for the Egyptians, but this is not true. Hervas recognized that “Nabonassar” (i.e. Nabu-nasir), a king of Babylon, had reformed the Babylonian calendar, creating interacalary months to marry lunar and solar calendars and establishing an eighteen year cycle.
However, Hervas takes Ptolemy at his word in the Almagest (3.7) that this established a universal Anno Nabonassari, but in fact the only reason Nabu-nasir’s name is remembered is because Ptolemy and other Hellenistic astronomers used his calendar to calculate the motion of the stars. This, in turn, is because it is only with the ascension of Nabu-nasir that complete and careful astronomical and calendrical records begin at Babylon, which Ptolemy drew upon.
Nor was this the only “era” used by Ptolemy; he also said that the calendar began anew with Philippus Aridaeus, Caesar Augustus, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius. He did not mean that the calendar literally started to mark time for each of these men; rather, this was how Ptolemy was referencing dates to try to reduce confusion created by the traditional (eastern) practice of counting years by the name of the monarch—i.e., “the third year of Cleopatra VII,” etc.—by grouping years together in larger eras. Nabu-nasir came first because he had the oldest usable records. Besides, it would have been strange for Egypt to have used a Babylonian king to define their calendar for all time. (See Olaf Pedersen, A Survey of the Almagest, 2010, pp.126-128.)
Such facts are beyond Ivan Van Sertima, who cares nothing for what Ptolemy actually said so long as someone, somewhere said something he could use for Afrocentric polemic.
Since the Mayan calendar, which marks time from August 11, 3114 BCE, was not deciphered and correlated to the Gregorian calendar until the twentieth century, Hervas must have been talking about the Aztec calendar, understood in the eighteenth century. This calendar, though, was nothing like the Egyptian. The Egyptian calendar had 12 months of 30 days plus 5 intercaledary days. The Aztec calendar had 18 months of 20 days plus 5 inercalendary days. The coincidence of 5 intercalendary days—something Hervas emphasizes and Van Sertima quotes gleefully—stems entirely from the impossibility of dividing 365 into even units, not from any magical ancestral calendar. It is simple math, derived from the coincidental remainder when dividing 365 by either 20 or 12.
Nor is the beginning of the calendar cycle well-fixed. The earliest recorders differed in their descriptions. Diego Durán, a Dominican friar, held that the new year began on March 1, while Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan priest, held that the new year began on February 2.
At any rate, the celebration of the New Year, even if it were February 26, is hardly the same thing as Ptolemy suggesting that a new era began on one specific February 26 in 747 BCE. The Egyptian New Year began on August 29, at least in the late period. Because they had no concept of the leap day, the calendar gradually shifted across the seasons.
Van Sertima, ignoring all of this, then completely misunderstands Hervas, writing that “Egyptian influence may be traced to…the time Mexicans began to count the years….” Hervas never says that the Mexican calendar began for all time on February 26, and in fact stated that the new year began that day. Van Sertima confuses the new year date with the foundation date of the calendar.
Read Hervas’s subsequent sentence carefully: “If those [i.e. Aztec] priests fixed also upon this day as an epoch, because it was celebrated in Egypt, we have there the Mexican Calendar agreeing with the Egyptian.” The “if” clause is important. It is telling us that Hervas is asking us to assume that if the Mexicans adopted the Egyptian calendar’s “epoch,” then the Mexican calendar is also the Egyptian calendar. This is circular reasoning made possible because Hervas adopted the widespread (and fictive) belief that “the Mexicans [i.e. Aztec] had their Calendar from the Toltecas (originating from Asia)….” Hervas believed the Toltecs were originally from Asia and had contact with the Egyptians, and that all of this happened at a relatively early date, c. 800 BCE.
This, in turn, was made possible by the religious belief that the first Americans were descendants of one of Noah’s sons, probably Shem, a people who migrated to the Americas sometime after 2356 BCE, the calculated year of the Flood based on creation in 4004 BCE. According to theories popular in the eighteenth century, these people were probably some of the Lost Tribes of Israel, who therefore did not reach the Americas until after the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 720 BCE when they disappear from the Biblical record. This is the deep background for why Hervas felt that the Toltec must have brought the post-747 BCE Nabonassar calendar with them, since it would have been in universal use, or so he thought, in the Near East of the age.
But Van Sertima cares nothing for this, or for the longstanding controversy about the peopling of the Americas that it forms a small sidelight upon. Hervas was a man of his time, but that time had long passed by 1976, and Ivan Van Sertima—a graduate student at Rutgers that year—should have known that centuries-old sources cannot be used uncritically, and that hoary old claims do not automatically pass a “rigorous test” in his words simply by being old. Hervas’s claims do not match modern discoveries, and Van Sertima displayed his monumental hubris in pretending that two centuries of subsequent discoveries could be ignored because a letter in an appendix to an old book could help him make a case for Afrocentrism when the facts, as known to science, could not.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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