The Olmecs and Potential African Influence

BradleyCollege Papers, History, Undergraduate Work5 Comments

We’re covering research methodologies in my Introduction to Anthropology class right now, and to introduce us to a particular concept, which I’ll mention later, our professor had us read up on the Olmecs and then watch a video by a gentleman by the name of Dr. Van Sertima.

If you’re not familiar with the Olmecs, they were a civilization in Mesoamerica from roughly 1500 to 400 BCE and there’s a lot of controversy about whether or not they were a mother culture to the later Mesoamerican cultures, like the Toltecs and Mayans.  A lot of artifacts have been found, showing how the Olmecs’ culture diffused down and out into the other cultures, but nothing showing that the other civilizations’ cultures influenced the Olmecs in the same way.  You can read more about the Olmecs, and the “mother culture” / “sister culture” debate by clicking here, and by reading a New York Times article about it by clicking here, which closes by comparing the effect the Olmecs had on later Mesoamerican civilizations to the lasting effect Greek and Roman culture had on Western civilizations.

After reading up on the Olmecs, we were presented with the following video to watch:

http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=-3924842503305971166&hl=en&fs=true

The video is about 46 minutes long.  If you don’t want to watch it all, here’s the relevant information:

This video is a recording of a presentation given by Dr. Van Sertima, where he presents evidence that the Olmecs had contact with Africans.  He goes on to prove this theory by first showing that it was possible for Africans to reach Central America using ocean currents.  He stated that there have been numerous trips made on small boats, some without sails, that have safely made it across the Atlantic, so it is possible.  He talks about the similarity between the depictions of one of the Olmec gods and one of the gods of Egypt, who Africans would have also had contact with.  He also noted that Olmec pyramids had a base that matched the size of the base of the Giza pyramids, and that Olmec rulers took to wearing purple, which was popular among Egyptian nobility.  He also points out that some of the Olmec monumental heads (pictured below) have distinctly African features, and that the helmet the monumental head is wearing looks Egyptian in design.

Olmec monumental head.

Dr. Van Sertima stated that he had been working for years to get the scientific community to at least acknowledge the possibility that Africans and Olmecs had contacted each other at some point, but everyone gave him excuses about why it couldn’t possibly be true, including things as ridiculous as saying the stone head must have fallen over, causing the lips and nose to flatten out.  One of my favorite lines was when he said that every other civilization in the world was traveling and establishing trade routes, so why would the Africans be the only ones that were sitting around doing nothing?  My first thought was that they weren’t as developed.  In some cases, Africans still aren’t as developed as other countries today.  However, in my Art History class we had just covered Sub Saharan African art, and I remembered reading that there were advanced cities in what is now modern day Nigeria as early as around 500 BC, and that remnants of goods from as far away as China have been found there.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they went there to get them, but it does speak volumes for the level of trade and advanced culture they’d developed.

So, do I think Dr. Van Sertima is right?  Well, it’s definitely possible, but given how much he emphasizes that Egyptian cultural traits are evident in Olmec culture, rather than African, I’d say that it’s more likely an Egyptian ship with African slaves got blown off course, possibly caught in a current, and wound up in Olmec territory.  It’s possible that, at some point, Africans sailed to Central America, but if that were the case, why would they have left the Olmecs with Egyptian styles of royal dress (use of the color purple) and why would the Olmecs have adopted an Egyptian god, rather than an African one?  I could argue against that by asking why, if the Africans were only slaves, does the monument resemble an African?  But, maybe the Africans aboard the Egyptian ships doubled as warriors when they landed in Central America, and the Olmecs admired their apparent strength?  Anyway, it’s all speculation, but an interesting topic to speculate about!

After discussing these topics in class, our professor asked us what we can learn about anthropological study from Dr. Van Sertima’s methodologies.  The best answer was something Dr. Van Sertima said: “…history leaves its mark on everything.”  What does that mean?  Well, you can’t put all of your eggs in one basket and rely solely on documents and written records.  You have to think bigger.  Also, it’s important to remember that any written records you come across, including your own, will likely be biased, either consciously or unconsciously, and that you have to take that into account when trying to decipher past events from the evidence we have left to us.

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