Have you ever heard of Leo Weiner? No, not the Hungarian composer. The other Leo Weiner, the American scholar born in Russia of Polish-Jewish heritage. He immigrated to the United States from Russia in the late nineteenth century with the eccentric idea of continuing on to British Honduras (now Belize) in order to start a vegetarian commune, but along the way he changed his mind and began a teaching career in Kansas City, Missouri that culminated in him becoming Harvard University’s first professor of Slavic studies.
However interesting that is, he was also thoroughly convinced that the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa had traveled to Mexico and gave rise to Mesoamerican cultures. His Harvard status has made him a popular choice for Afrocentric writers to rely upon as evidence of scholarly confirmation of their beliefs.
Leo Weiner believed, as so many apparently do, that American archaeology was “to a great extent built on sand” and, of course, in a conspiracy to suppress the truth—the truth this time being the African origins of American civilization. It was an idea he developed most fully in his three-volume study Africa and the Discovery of America (1920-1922).
He also proposed, eccentrically, that Columbus’s journal of his voyage to America was a fake, and that the islands called Lucaies by Columbus (often said to be the Bahamas) were fabricated from a misreading of the black letter appearance of the word “Indies” on a map consulted by the forger. He did not believe that Bartolomé de Las Casas redacted the Columbus journals into the form in which we have them but rather that they were simply fabricated from Las Casas’s own writings. But that’s neither here nor there.
Weiner was a polyglot linguist who claimed fluency in twenty languages, but his practical knowledge of language led him to false conclusions that today read as laughably ridiculous. Specifically, he decided that any two words that were spelled similarly must be connected, no matter the language of origin; the only question was deciding which language borrowed the word from the other. This is his primary evidence for an African presence in pre-Columbian Mexico.
In Africa and the Discovery of America, he argued that Mexican words were obvious descendants of the Mandé vocabulary of the Mandinka (formerly spelled Mandingo) of West Africa. Weiner stated, for example, that Fernandez de Oviedo reported in the Chronicle of America that the Mexicans of Castilla de Oro used the word tequina to mean “master,” which Weiner saw as identical to the Mandé word tigi, or master. I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder. I don’t see or hear the similarity myself, not to mention that tequina is a Spanish-influenced transliteration of the original.
He also links the Aztec word for merchant, pochteca, to the Mandé corruption of the Arabic word for wealth, fi-al-mal. The corrupt form is faling. By comparing this to other African cognate corruptions and other words for wealth, he concludes that the pan-African word for wealth was folom, which he feels yielded the Maya p’olom and thus the Aztec pochteca. That he claims this word entered the Maya tongue in the 1400s, nearly 600 years after the Maya collapse and two centuries after the rise of the Aztec, bothers him not.
Similarly, he makes a convoluted argument that a loincloth called ζειραί (zeirai) in Herodotus and ’izar in Arabic is also the mi’zar, or girl’s loin-cloth, of Arabic and therefore the masirili, or ornamentation, of Mandé. Consequently, he believes masirili yielded maxtli, a type of modesty garment for one’s loins, in Nahuatl. You can see that this argument is nutty on the surface and also presumes that the powerful Aztec empire and its predecessors somehow abandoned words large and small with a few Mandinka sailed from Africa near the very end of their empire.
He catalogues page after page of similar linguistic “connections,” none really convincing.
Because the Mandinka are today predominantly Muslim, Islamic extremists have declared this evidence of the Muslim discovery of America; however, the Mandinka practiced traditional African faiths until around 1800. Weiner is actually quite happy about this because, largely ignorant of anthropology, he believed that Native American religions all derived from Mandinka animisitic shamanism, which he called fetishism. Oddly, those who use Weiner’s work to promote the idea of early Muslim trans-oceanic voyages don’t seem to care that Weiner didn’t support that view. And of course neither felt that it was worth noting that Mexico had had a rich and developed culture for thousands of years before the proposed travel dates.
However, Weiner’s arguments—particularly the one above about the maxtli—convinced Afrocentrists like Ivan Van Sertima that the Mexican language was littered with words West African in origin and therefore all of the Mexican textile trade was an import from Africa. Following Weiner, these wtiers assert that no less an authority than Christopher Columbus confirms that the Mandinka voyaged to America. Their source is Las Casas’s version of the Journal of the Third Voyage, but it doesn’t say what Van Sertima and others claim. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the journal (apparently published in an 1892 Italian edition not currently online), so I have to rely on Weiner’s own translation, which reports that King Juan of Portugal told Columbus that merchants from Guinea had sailed from Africa to “islands” in the west. This is Weiner’s translation, which I have not verified from the original, in which Columbus decides to go to Guinea
to verify on his way the opinion of King Don Juan, and he wanted to find out what the Indians of Hispaniola had told him, that there had come to it from the south and southeast Negro people, who brought those spear points made of a metal which they call guanin, of which he had sent to the king and queen for assaying, and which was found to have in thirty-two parts eighteen of gold, six of silver, and eight of copper.
We seem to have two conflated stories here. The first is the allegation that the merchants of Guinea sailed west to some islands. These could be the Cape Verde or the Canary Islands, two sets of islands close to the African coast. Cape Verde is off the coast of what was historically called Guinea, though officially they were not discovered until 1456 by the Portuguese. Or it could be a complete myth, since Columbus says that the interpretation of the islands as being the New World was the “opinion” of King Juan, not the Guinea natives themselves. Possibly the Guinea traders hit another spot on the African coast and thought it was an island. Juan had ample reason to try to make such a connection, for by papal decree of 1479, Guinea and any islands near it or attached to it or occupied by it were Portugal’s sphere of influence while the Canaries northward would belong to Spain; should there be a Guinea presence in the West Indies, then Portugal could rightfully claim a share of Spain’s wealthy New World lands. Juan had every reason to fabricate a Guinea voyage to America and ask Columbus to dig up some evidence for it.
The other story is what the Hispaniola natives told Columbus. In this case, it sounds very much like the Hispaniola natives are speaking of people from South America or perhaps Mesoamerica. They would not have seen African people in 1498, so the word “Negro” seems to refer merely to a relatively darker skin tone; I wish I had the original to know exactly what word Columbus used. [See update here for more on the alleged quotation.] South and southeast of Hispaniola would take one to the northern coast of South America, particularly the area around Venezuela. Some scholars today believe that the guanin of the Antilles was imported from the Maya, who are known to have visited the Caribbean islands and to have traded with the Tainos. Others feel it was a native production from natural deposits in the Greater Antilles. The Tainos also traded with Venezuela, the land to the south and east. This, I would venture, solves the mystery of the Columbus quotation that Afrocentrists have been using for nearly a century as evidence of an African presence in pre-Columbian America.
Nevertheless, Ivan Van Sertima and other Afrocentrists have read Columbus’ account (well, Weiner’s translation, anyway) as confirmation of a passage in Al-Umari’s Masalik (whose text has apparently not been translated, and Arabic is not one of my languages) that Kankan Musa of Mali reported that his predecessor, Abu Bakr II, had sailed into the Atlantic in the 1310s in search of the ocean’s other shore. He never returned, so Afrocentrists see Columbus’s passage as indicating Abu Bakr made it to the Caribbean. Obviously, if the Columbus passage does not actually refer to Africans, then Al-Umari’s account records nothing more than a futile lost voyage that vanished into the waves.
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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