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.
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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