Today I’d like to direct your attention to the Ancient Aliens Debunked blog where Frank Johnson has a long and detailed article dismantling David Childress’s many and varied claims for the global cultures he thinks influenced the Olmec (hint: everyone except for any Native Americans), centering on his assertion that the Olmec stone heads represent African people. Johnson memorably declares Childress’s cut-and-paste methodology “Spaghetti Diffusionism,” because it throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. It’s a great read and well worth the time to check out in full.
To Johnson’s discussion, however, I would add a bit of background about the origins of some of Childress’s claims about the Olmec heads. The first Olmec heads were discovered in the nineteenth century, and they were lumped in with Mayan art at first because the Victorians thought the Maya were indescribably ancient. Augustus Le Plongeon, font of so much fringe theorizing (he inspired James Churchward to invent the sunken continent of Mu), introduced the concept of “ancient relations that existed between [the Maya] and the inhabitants of the west coast of Africa” (letter, reproduced in Stephen Salisbury’s The Maya). In 1877, he sent to the International Congress of Americanists a letter outlining his claims, and it was published in the Boston Daily Advertiser in September of that year. In the letter, Le Plongeon asserted that the post-classic Mayan city of Chichen Itza was the center of a global trade network extending to Africa and Asia, adding that Easter Island must have been influenced by Tiahuanaco.
But if the builders of the strange structures on Easter Island have had, then, communications with the rearers of Tiahuanaco by land, then we may easily account for the many coincidences which exist between the laws, religious rites, sciences,—astronomical and others,—customs, monuments, languages, and even dresses, of the inhabitants of this Western continent, and those of Asia and Africa. Hence the similarity of many Asiatic and American notions. Hence, also, the generalized idea of a deluge among men, whose traditions remount to the time when the waters that covered the plains of America, Europe, Africa and Asia left their beds, invaded the portions of the globe they now occupy, and destroyed their inhabitants.
Le Plongeon also did Graham Hancock one better by pronouncing Central American images of bearded men to be Assyrian. Hancock merely declared them “white.”
Stephen Salisbury popularized Le Plongeon’s views in his The Maya (1877), and it is from a summary of this book in John T. Short’s The North Americans of Antiquity (1880) that Ignatius Donnelly adopted the ideas an applied them specifically to the Olmec heads in Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), which is the wellspring of most modern fringe ideas. Donnelly asserted that the Olmec heads were “negroid,” but, being a man of his age, he had no time for the idea that Africans could be anything but inferior, he came to what he saw as the only logical conclusion:
The features are unmistakably negroid. As the negroes have never been a sea-going race, the presence of these faces among the antiquities of Central America proves one of two things, either the existence of a land connection between America and Africa via Atlantis, as revealed by the deep-sea soundings of the Challenger, or commercial relations between America and Africa through the ships of the Atlanteans or some other civilized race, whereby the negroes were brought to America as slaves at a very remote epoch.
Donnelly did not explain why Mexicans would make statues of slaves or wandering serfs.
The only evidence there ever was for this “theory” was the observer’s own ignorance of what actual descendants of the Olmec and the Maya continue to look like today (hint: just like the Olmec and the Maya of the past) and their own assumptions about some imaginary essentialist view of what “negroid” features were supposed to be.
Today only the most credulous fringe theorists like David Childress maintain that Maya art depicts Africans, so obvious is the similarity of the Maya still living to those depicted in ancient art. Yet the Olmec connection to Africa continues across a much broader array of fringe writing. This is the legacy of Leo Wiener, a Russian-born Harvard scholar of Slavic studies who in the 1920s wasn’t aware of the Olmec per se but claimed a widespread African influence in Mexico in a series of popular books, though he assigned it to the historical period, specifically the High Middle Ages. His three-volume Africa and the Discovery of America (1920-1922), for all its scholarly problems, became the intellectual foundation for Afrocentrism because it was written by Harvard professor, albeit one whose expertise in Mesoamerican history derived entirely from his time living on a vegetarian commune in British Honduras.
Wiener famously argued that Columbus’s journals were forgeries, and he argued that Mayan and Aztec languages were filled with medieval African loan words from the Mandé tongue, no matter how much he had to stretch the definitions to make them fit. (For example, he argued that Herodotus’ word for loin cloth, ζειραί [zeirai] yielded via the Arabic ’izar the Mandé masirilli, a word for personal ornamentation, which then transformed back into the Nahuatl word for loincloth, maxtli—but only in the 1200s or 1300s CE, when the Mandinka arrived in Mexico!)
Ivan Van Sertima took inspiration from both Donnelly and Wiener and made the Olmec heads a cornerstone of his Afrocentric view of history. It is from Wiener that Van Sertima derived many of his claims for Africans in America, and he reversed Ignatius Donnelly’s racist views by asserting that the Africans had been the dominant race. Van Sertima extended Wiener’s argument by pressing the Nubians and the Egyptians into service to extend “African” domination of Mexico from prehistory to the coming of the Spanish—even though this compromised the Olmec head claim since the Egyptians and Nubians lack the allegedly “negroid” features seen on the heads!
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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