University of New Mexico Revises Reason for Studying Olmec Heads on Trip Exploring "African Presence" in Mexico
The University of New Mexico came under fire online from anthropologists, archaeologists, activists, and skeptics after a flyer for an upcoming study abroad trip sponsored by their Chicano Studies department caused outrage by promising to help students learn about the “African presence” in Mexico during Olmec times. The trip, scheduled for May, was intended to explore the African experience in Mexico across time, including in the colonial period and in contemporary Mexico. But it was the decision to follow the Afrocentric claim that Olmec society had an African component that set off alarm bells.
According to online records, UNM’s Chicano Studies has been running the “Exploring the African Presence in Mexico” trip for a decade, each time implying in their published descriptions that the colossal stone heads of the Olmec are evidence of African visitors. The flyer makes fairly clear that the Olmec heads are meant to be seen as African, since one appears alongside images of Afro-Mexicans.
Now, after weeks of bad publicity on social media, it appears that UNM has backed down—partially. The description of the trip has been altered. Here is how they described the Olmec portion of the trip in a 2010 flyer:
As detailed in the acclaimed museum exhibit, the African Presence in Mexico, our trip explores the African presence in Mexico from three different perspectives; Olmec Culture, colonial slavery, and contemporary Afromestizo communities. Dr. Sagrario Cruz, one of the exhibits co-curators, will lead us as we explore African communities, visit historical locations associated with slavery in Veracruz, and guide us as we delve into the roots of Olmec culture where we will [visit] almost all of the colossal Olmec heads of Los Tuxtlas, La Venta, and San Lorenzo de los Negros. Beyond the African Presence we will also take advantage of many other cultural opportunities in and around the communities we are scheduled to visit (the Great Pyramids at Tajin for example).
As you can see, the original description quite heavily implies that Olmec culture has an African origin, though it does not explicitly state this. Here is how the revised description appeared after being updated in the past week:
As detailed in the acclaimed museum exhibit, the African Presence in Mexico, our trip explores the African presence in Mexico in three different epochs; Olmec Culture, Colonial Slavery, and Contemporary Afromestizo Communities. UNM Faculty members Dr. Doris Careaga Coleman and Dr. Finnie D. Coleman join Dr. Sagrario Cruz from the Universidad Veracruzana to team teach a vibrant and important history - the history of people of African descent in Mexico. We will visit a number of Afromexican communities and historical locations associated with the slave trade in Veracruz. We will delve into the roots of Olmec culture and examine all but a few of the colossal Olmec heads of Los Tuxtlas, La Venta, and San Lorenzo. Our purpose is not to claim that these heads reflect a pre-Columbian African presence, but to help our students understand how and why many people of African descent have come to revere these magnificent heads. Acknowledging concerns of anthropologists, it is important to note that we do not claim that the Olmec are of African descent beyond the notion that all of humanity finds its origins in Africa. For more than a decade we have allowed UNM students to view these magnificent works of art in person and to visit with anthropologists in Mexico about their origins. We discuss the visceral and often hostile responses to Jose Melgar’s and later Ivan Van Sertima’s suggestion that the Olmec reflect a pre-Colombian African presence. We make sure that our students know that research offers no credible evidence that proves a pre-Columbian connection to Africa. Anthropologists in Mexico help our students to understand that in spite of this absence of anthropological evidence, many people of African descent continue to believe these heads do reflect a pre-Colombian African presence and use those beliefs to inform their notions of what it means to be of African descent in Mexico.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but it’s interesting to see how defensive the trip organizers are in their discussion. It is implausible that they spent ten years visiting the Olmec heads and explicitly stating that they were evidence of an “African presence” in Mexico without really meaning it. Now they claim that their importance lies in how Afro-Mexicans have used American Afrocentrist pseudoscience to create a false cultural history tied to indigenous Mexico. While this is certainly interesting on its own, it’s also clearly not what the trip’s organizers have been teaching for ten years, to go by the descriptions they themselves wrote. It’s also interesting that they describe opposition to Afrocentrism as “visceral” and “hostile” even though they admit that Afrocentrism lacks any evidence for African Olmec. Their words belie a viewpoint that sees Afrocentrism as culturally empowering, regardless of its factual correctness.
There is, of course, some irony in the Afrocentrist acceptance of the idea that the Olmec stone heads represent Black Africans instead of the actual Maya people of the region, whom they so clearly resemble. The original claim that the heads were of Africans was made in the nineteenth century—as a racist argument that Native peoples of the Americas were so racially inferior that the even accepted Black Africans as their superiors, even though the Black Africans were obviously the slaves of white Atlanteans.
Here is Ignatius Donnelly making the case in Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882):
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.
Ultimately, the claim originates, as best I can tell, with Augustus Le Plongeon, who wrote of “ancient relations that existed between [the Maya] and the inhabitants of the west coast of Africa.” It’s disconcerting to see that more than a century later, we are still stuck in Victorian fantasies.
2/21/2019 09:19:51 am
Sad, but not surprising that this type of nonsense has crept into university studies. A reflection of post-modernism? I don't know, but unfortunate.
2/21/2019 02:26:55 pm
As a academic within the Humanities, I in reality don’t see this kind of thing often. I hate when rare events like this occur then people yell “post-modernism!” and “universities are getting bad!” as a slogan. It’s worse because it gives a false impression that we scholars in the Humanities and Social Sciences are ok with advocating for pseudoscience. I agree that this African Olmec debacle is moronic and would scold the people responsible for even considering this useless trip but the ultra post-modern university boogeyman is exaggerated.
“Disco” Demolition Night
2/21/2019 02:37:12 pm
Pop, that was a good attempt at explaining post-postmodernism.
2/21/2019 03:31:34 pm
@Disco. Maybe I wasn’t clear. I’m not defending nor ignoring the effects of post-modernism. I was just saying that people blow it out of proportion when a minority fringe do something moronic then blame a collective of people. Seeing that you’re not a academic who who has luxury and the time to troll others you clearly don’t understand the problem. Is it really that important for you to get the last word to the point you have to shitpost because of it? I swear I feel like I’m talking to edgy teenagers sometimes in this blog. Jason, you should start moderating the comments or something. I come here to read what nonsense the history charlatans are up too, not have a flame war with a troll who has the need to feel like the smartest guy in the room.
2/21/2019 04:03:07 pm
Check your grammar there pops. You wrote that I’m not “a [sic] academic who has the time and luxury to troll others.” You’ve actually declared that you’re the troll, although I doubt that’s what you intended. I’ve read more lucid sentences from “edgy teenagers”!
2/21/2019 04:36:14 pm
2/21/2019 04:36:15 pm
Thanks Disco. After seeing that grammar problem not once, but twice, I suspect that our "humanities academic" is anything but.
2/21/2019 08:14:31 pm
This has been going on since the late 1980s. Here is the Encyclopedia of American Loons page on Hunter Adams the 'Researcher' at Muse-Argonne National Laboratory who supplied the Baseline Essay on African and African-American Contributions to Science and Technology which the State of Oregon promoted as a good and proper thing for teachers to use nationwide to encourage African-Americans to stay in the sciences.
Human Centipede Head Segment
2/23/2019 06:59:15 am
Firstly, that this episode of pseudoscience baloney occurred and spread to other states' education boards is emblematic of zero federal oversight on state education standards (at that time).
2/25/2019 04:38:46 pm
"..This all happened in the 1990s, Afrocentrism renamed itself 'African Studies' and the rest is sadly history..."
2/25/2019 04:34:30 pm
"..this type of nonsense has crept into university studies..." *What kind of nonsense are you referring to, the hundred of year of EUROCENTRIC psuedo-historical and pusedo-scientific lies the university system has forced upon the rest of the planet?!!! Are these the fuckin' nonsense you're talking about?!!
2/21/2019 10:17:56 am
How did Africans get to Central America during the time of the Olmecs? Regularly scheduled airlines has got to be the answer. However after carving the heads, they left no other evidence...no tools, graves, other carving, ruins of villages or oral tradition. They came, they carved, they left.
2/21/2019 10:41:56 am
At least today’s post saves us from another endless and meandering Joe Scales screed about how Colavito is a dishonest liberal who hates white people and by implication himself.
2/21/2019 11:07:02 am
But you are all Christian fundamentalists
2/21/2019 03:53:09 pm
I do notice that religious fundamentalists sometimes roam the comments. It’s ironic that these people could see the bullshit of the fringe writers but don’t question their own wild interpretations of their faith.
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
2/22/2019 12:30:39 am
"Rational Man" is the latest pseudonym of a longtime commenter who seems to think that anyone who disagrees with his pet theories about the origins of religion is a fundamentalist.
2/21/2019 11:37:33 am
But apparently not the ramblings of a burgeoning cyber-stalker in love with yours truly.
2/21/2019 02:55:12 pm
I knew that Joe was a slightly loony conservative but I didn’t know he had such far-right views. I once called him out for it when he was defending Trump and the GOP in other blogs and this one. He then claimed he was a political centrist. Reminds me of Only Me, a commenter here who’s a Republican bot and amusingly attempted to claim that liberals are more dangerous than conservatives (Not true, right-wing extremism is 4x more common than left-wing violence. Read anything from David Neiwart and Cas Mudde for some eye opening stuff). Joe is such a hypocrite. He calls himself a skeptic and claims to care about the truth but then blindly believes whatever the conservative hive mind tells him. He apparently didn’t get the memo that 60-70 percent of Anti-science think tanks, organizations, and law centres are politically conservative. He’s not much different from the pseudoscience charlatans themselves. I’m always stunned. How do conservative skeptics ignore the fact that the GOP out of ignorance are repealing environmental laws backed up by studies and actual scientists? How do they ignore that their political party denies climate science, evolution, push a strongly religious agenda and much more. Once they drank the punch I guess there’s no reasoning with them.
2/21/2019 04:06:13 pm
"He then claimed he was a political centrist."
2/25/2019 04:56:12 pm
"How do conservative skeptics ignore the fact that the GOP out of ignorance are repealing environmental laws backed up by studies and actual scientists?"
2/21/2019 11:32:49 pm
Thanks for answering for me Cisco "Disco" Kid Molester i'm genarally able to answer for myself.
2/21/2019 11:45:47 am
Some of these two week "study abroad" programs are not a whole lot more than Spring Break with an extra week of drinking tacked on. I was told at one university where I worked that they wanted me to do one and would give me 3 or $4k. I told them I would pay 3 or 4k to not have to do it.
2/21/2019 11:55:09 am
I always thought the Olmec heads looked polynesian. But what do I know?
2/21/2019 12:46:34 pm
Thank you for highlighting this. Native people haven't had good platforms (yet) to counter this new form of colonial erasure. Most people are unwilling to call it out for fear of being accused of racism as well.
2/21/2019 01:00:07 pm
Native people in Mexico practiced ritual human sacrifice up until the time of European contact. Perhaps that aspect of “colonial erasure” wasn’t such a bad thing?
2/21/2019 01:34:59 pm
Except that this erasure corresponded roughly to the period of Spanish slaughter of vast numbers of people in europe under the guise of the Inquisition and trying to get rid of all those pesky Protestants. And in the longterm they racked up much higher numbers than the Aztecs.
2/21/2019 02:28:59 pm
Rock, you’ve obviously never watched Mel Brooks’ sweeping epic film “History of the World, Part I” in which the Spanish Inquisituon which was quite accurately portrayed as a fun loving madcap affair, replete with singing, dancing, synchronized swimming, and the hilarious Jackie Mason!
2/21/2019 09:12:57 pm
Christians practice ritual cannibalism every Sunday. Maybe we should erase Christianity, and completely ignore every bit of good it ever did just based on that one thing.
2/22/2019 12:00:01 am
Nah, let's erase Christianity for the hundreds of years of terror they subjected the world to with their endless inquisitions.
2/22/2019 10:01:55 am
Well, it's pick your poison. Do you want to control your population by fooling them with religion, or do you want to undertake a more physical approach.
2/25/2019 09:01:43 pm
"Native people in Mexico practiced ritual human sacrifice up until the time of European contact. Perhaps that aspect of “colonial erasure” wasn’t such a bad thing?"
2/21/2019 01:50:28 pm
All of these unsupported claims of early contact across the oceans seem to involve people from the "Old World" continents going to the Americas. I'm curious if any fringe writers have ever claimed the reverse - that people from the Americas journeyed to Europe or Africa or Asia before Columbus.
2/21/2019 03:39:56 pm
They attempted to do so, but were stopped by the Kings and Queens of Europe, Asia and Africa proclaiming a "National Emergency" and then attempting to build a wall to keep them out.
2/21/2019 03:41:18 pm
Not that I’m aware of. As Jason stated before, fringe history was strongly based on racism and discriminatory ideologies. Even today, a significant subset of fringe writers are openly alt-right, neo-Nazis etc. Even the fringe writers that aren’t racist still use old and debunked material from those past writers and their works. Maybe some fringe writers have claimed that people from the Americas traveled to Oceania but I’m not absolutely sure about that.
2/21/2019 05:09:12 pm
I find that everything I don't like is strongly based on racism and discriminatory ideologies and people I disagree with are openly alt-right, neo-Nazis etc.
2/21/2019 09:15:10 pm
I've only heard of one claim that I can think of, that there was a "Native American canoe" found somewhere in England. It was, of course, bupkiss. Nowhere NEAR the volume of claims of Europe/Africa/Asia claims.
2/21/2019 10:29:45 pm
"An actual Native American voyage to Europe is, in fact, possible, and every so often new scholars make claims that some historical tale references actual transoceanic voyages. One of the more convincing accounts of such a voyage relates that in 1508 a seven-man bark canoe carrying what seemed to be Inuit was captured by a French ship near England. Unlike Mela’s Indians, these people spoke an unknown language, wore clothes made of fish skins, and drank blood.  They were decidedly not merchants in a trading ship, but like Mela’s Indians, the one captive who survived was presented to the King of France as a gift. As we move forward in time, we find better-attested stories of an Inuit-style canoe reaching the Orkney Islands in 1682 and again in 1684,  though the people of Orkney thought the sailors to be Finns. ****A mysterious sailor arriving in Scotland due to a storm in 1700 left a canoe, now in the Marischal Museum at the University of Aberdeen, which has been identified as Inuit.****  The people encountered in 60 BCE could not have been Inuit, however, since the Inuit did not enter eastern Canada before 1000 CE, when they began to replace the earlier Dorset culture."
2/21/2019 10:17:43 pm
In the late 19th century, Augustus Le Plongeon theorized that Mayan Yucatán was the cradle of civilization and that Mayan civilization and knowledge spread eastward to ancient Egypt by way of Atlantis.
2/25/2019 04:17:03 pm
2/25/2019 07:53:31 pm
2/25/2019 08:32:06 pm
Just remembering, where to find the quotes, was the intent of my respect. So much of this stuff gets repeatedly recycled, it is difficult to remember which book?
2/21/2019 05:03:45 pm
I’ve been affiliated with enough universities to know that their is at least one confabulist on every faculty.
2/21/2019 05:41:42 pm
Sounds like you benefited from some actual extended well structured summer programs that undergo some degree if vetting. This one is one of those two week wonder term break programs that are often of uneven quality and just get rubber stamped after a token review. That's how you end up with controversies like this.
2/21/2019 09:51:22 pm
Well Doc, I definitely benefitted from having a certain part of my male anatomy getting “actually extended” by a certain “well structured” female student in the program. And let me tell you that it was no “token review”!
2/21/2019 10:30:19 pm
An added benefit of a Summer long program. No doubt said extension occurred on multiple occasions and/or without the financial considerations that would likely be necessary to make the magic happen on a much more businesslike basis during a whirlwind tour.
An Anonymous Nerd
2/21/2019 10:59:21 pm
In my ideal world, academics would be at the forefront of debunking. It's saddening that academia seems actively to discourage that kind of public engagement. But to read about academia actively promoting bunk is beyond saddening.
2/22/2019 02:20:18 pm
Except that criticism, including criticism from disciplines like Anthropology within academia, has resulted in the initiation of a process of self-correction within what may be the only institution in the US (or possibly one of a handful of programs) that was pitching this type of field trip. I'm quite confident that this dust-up will serve to intensify pre-existing criticism of the Olmec/African business.
An Anonymous Nerd
2/22/2019 07:50:58 pm
This post seems to believe that my horror resulted from the removal of the imagined Olmec/African connection. I don't know how you got that. My horror resulted from the fact that any University could buy into such a thing, at all.
2/22/2019 08:34:17 pm
Well, this is the second time that you have tried to use what would at best be statistical outliers, shaky logic, and ignorance (in the traditional sense) of academics to support what any objective reader would see as broad generalizations. So it is what it is....
2/22/2019 09:48:29 pm
So, drinking to forget. Cool!
An Anonymous Nerd
2/22/2019 10:19:01 pm
[Best be prepared to live in a constant state of nausea if you expect an ideal world and something like this triggers you this badly.]
2/24/2019 09:58:18 am
We wuz MexiKangz!
2/25/2019 04:31:55 pm
I'm getting sick and tire of "some" white (with their "people of color" lawn jockeys) academics and intellectuals try to smear any African people (African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, etc.) who is "seeking truth" in a midst centuries of EUROCENTRIC lies, distortions and fallacies.
2/25/2019 04:53:46 pm
"I'm getting sick and tire(sic) of "some" white (with their "people of color" lawn jockeys) academics and intellectuals try(sic) to smear any African people (African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, etc.) who is(sic) "seeking truth"(sic) in a midst(sic) centuries of EUROCENTRIC(?) lies, distortions and fallacies. It seems,(sic) that white academics (not all, but most) have a problem with people of African descent seeking a level of 'agency'(?) in their own historiography and narratives. You don't want to credit BLACK PEOPLE(?) for anything, except the continuous manufactured stereotypes and artificial lies that's(sic) been passed down to you and "legitimate"(sic) and meaningful scholarship.
2/25/2019 04:33:54 pm
ALL of this reminds me of the literature and belief system of African American Gangs. If, I can find the handbook, I will quote some of it for Y'all.
2/25/2019 04:49:04 pm
"...ALL of this reminds me of the literature and belief system of African American Gangs. If, I can find the handbook, I will quote some of it for Y'all..."
2/25/2019 04:41:43 pm
Nothing but a bunch of racists on these boards. Why does the "alternative research" community attract so many white racist, Jared Taylor psuedo-scientific henchmen and neo-Nazi types?
2/25/2019 04:52:31 pm
Let's discuss the centuries of EUROCENTRIC/American historical lies and distortions, and how much damage it's done too the world!
2/25/2019 06:26:32 pm
I agree with much of the whole Eurocentric thing. Have argued with a couple hardheads here about how sub-Saharan Africa gets left out of a lot of discussions. Have pointed out African/African American contributions to what many people would like to think of as lily white western culture or American culture.
2/25/2019 06:47:35 pm
"But none of that changes the fact that the Olmec/African connection is unsubstantiated wishful thinking"
2/25/2019 07:39:52 pm
2/25/2019 08:44:08 pm
"I agree with much of the whole Eurocentric thing"
2/25/2019 09:16:16 pm
"But none of that changes the fact that the Olmec/African connection is unsubstantiated wishful thinking."
2/25/2019 08:48:15 pm
"Have pointed out African/African American contributions to what many people would like to think of as lily white western culture or American culture."
3/5/2019 04:46:36 pm
Jason it is my understanding that the consensus is that the Olmecs were not Mayans.
2/17/2020 09:00:05 am
Although I'm not a Mesoamerican expert nor an archeologist, I'd like someone to explain why we could find the scupture called "El Negro" in Tres Zapotes, Mexico which is, as we all know, far, very far from Africa.
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