I don’t think that the late Ivan Van Sertima actually knew how to read. At least that’s the impression I get every time I try to trace back one of his Afrocentrist claims from They Came before Columbus (1976) back to its source. Van Sertima wrote his book when he was a graduate student at Rutgers, and it says little for that institution’s educative training that one of their best-selling graduates simply cannot understand what he read in articles and books.
In discussing the “connections” between the Nubian people of the Sudan and the Olmecs of Mexico, Van Sertima makes a rather bizarre argument that, frankly, is difficult to follow. The background is that the Nubians (more properly the Kushites of the Kingdom of Kush of 800 BCE to 350 CE; “Nubians” being the people who replaced them) adopted and modified Egyptian culture, building their own pyramids and making statues of the Egyptian gods.
With that established, we can now look at Van Sertima’s tortured argument. He first identifies that importance of dogs in ancient Egypt, claiming they were mummified by the pharaohs. (This is true, but dogs were not universally part of the pharaoh’s funerary package; dogs were more likely to be buried in mass animal tombs, excepting perhaps beloved pets.) He then pivots and says that the “Nubians,” whom he confuses with Kushites, “were fascinated by horses” (p. 165) and buried horses in Kushite royal tombs along with full chariots.
Anubis had the head of a jackal, not a domestic dog.
This is where things get weird:
It would be, especially since Van Sertima just told us that the “Nubians” (Kushites) buried horses and not dogs. Van Sertima intends us to believe that the Olmec were visited by the Kushites during the high point of their culture, 800 BCE to 350 CE. This is just possible since the Olmec flourished between 2500 BCE and 400 BCE. But does Van Sertima’s source support his claim?
Van Sertima relies entirely upon one academic journal article for this claim: Gordon F. Eckholm’s 1946 American Antiquity article “Wheeled Toys in Mexico.” It does not say what Van Sertima says it says.
In his article, Eckholm describes a series of toys found in Mexico, dating from primarily from the last few centuries before the Spanish conquest, which he called “period V,” dating to around 1200 CE. He does not provide dates for all the pieces, but those he does date are not Olmec. Eckholm describes these toys as “wheeled vehicles,” by which he meant that they could be pulled on a string, like children’s toys today. Van Sertima mistakes this phrase for confirmation that the toys were intended as a “peculiar blend of dog and chariot.” This is not what was meant by “vehicle.”
Eckholm describes a particular animal toy with wheels that had been found in 1880 and labeled by its discoverer, the French archaeologist Claude-Joseph-Désiré Charnay, as a “chariot.” Well, that's how Eckholm summarized it. In the original, Charnay calls it a "cart" and discusses how the word "chariot" was used in post-Conquest Mexico. But Charnay was describing the resemblance of the low-slung, flat animal with wheels to a cart with an animal face. Charnay thought it might represent an Aztec wagon or cart (Ancient Cities of the New World, pp. 174-176). His illustration, also given in Eckholm, is reproduced below. As you can see, it is an animal with wheels, not as Van Sertima mistakenly believes from Charnay’s wording as conveyed by Eckholm a “little clay dogs attached … to tiny chariots with wheels.” Nor is it of Olmec extraction; it was found near Mexico City and dates from either late Toltec or early Aztec times (around 1200 CE), as Eckholm clearly explained.
The final piece, the only one that Van Sertima could reasonably have associated with the Olmec, was described as coming from Oaxaca, near the Olmec heartland. However, Eckholm explains in no uncertain terms that he believed the toy “must have been made in Spanish times” since it depicted a horse with a saddle, something unknown in pre-Columbian Mexico. Saddles were only invented around 700 BCE and were not in widespread use in the Old World until the Olmec had vanished. He also said it was of the Zapotec (Monte Alban) style, not Olmec.
The earliest example identified Eckholm placed in the Teotihuacan Period (100 BCE-700 CE), again not Olmec.
He did write that such toys might be “the result of contact with or influence from some Old World culture,” which Van Sertima gleefully seized upon, ignoring the subsequent statement that such a possibility was “quite unlikely.”
Eckholm does not identify the wheeled animals as dogs. He cites others as identifying some as peccaries and armadillos, and suggesting the above-mentioned animal was a horse. Charnay’s illustration perhaps resembles a dog, but there is no way to be sure. The figures are stylized. Some, especially those found after he wrote, undoubtedly were dogs, but Eckholm doesn't say so and Van Sertima never went in search of those sources.
In sum, Ivan Van Sertima either purposely misrepresented Eckholm’s article for profit, or he was simply incapable of understanding the material that he read. Given the polemical nature of Van Sertima’s book, the former would seem the more prudent conclusion, but given his admitted ignorance of the Olmec in later years, I suspect the latter.
Van Sertima’s The Came before Columbus was not given a full academic review until this century, and so far as I know, its claims have never been systematically evaluated. It’s painful to see that entire careers can be built on misunderstandings, fabrications, and lies just because no one ever bothered to check the sources.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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