Ivan Gladstone Van Sertima (26 January 1935 – 25 May 2009) was a Guyanese-born associate professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University in the United States.
He was best known for his Olmec alternative origin speculations, a brand of pre-Columbian contact theory, which he proposed in his book They Came Before Columbus (1976). While his Olmec theory has “spread widely in African American community, both lay and scholarly”, it was mostly ignored in Mesoamericanist scholarship, or else dismissed as Afrocentric pseudohistory to the effect of “robbing native American cultures”.[n 1]
Van Sertima was born in Kitty Village, near Georgetown, in what was then the colony of British Guiana (present-day Guyana); he retained his British citizenship throughout his life. He completed primary and secondary school in Guyana, and started writing poetry. He attended the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London from 1959. In addition to his creative writing, Van Sertima completed his undergraduate studies in African languages and literature at SOAS in 1969, where he graduated with honours.
From 1957 to 1959, worked as a Press and Broadcasting Officer in the Guyana Information Services. During the 1960s, he worked for several years in Great Britain as a journalist, doing weekly broadcasts to the Caribbean and Africa. Van Sertima married Maria Nagy in 1964; they adopted two sons, Larry and Michael.
In doing field work in Africa, he compiled a dictionary of Swahili legal terms in 1967. In 1970 Van Sertima immigrated to the United States, where he entered Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for graduate work.
After divorcing his first wife, Sertima remarried in 1984, to Jacqueline L. Patten, who had two daughters.
He published his They Came Before Columbus in 1976, as a Rutgers graduate student. The book deals mostly with his arguments for an African origin of Mesoamerican culture in the Western Hemisphere. Published by Random House rather than an academic press, They Came Before Columbus was a best-seller and achieved widespread attention within the African-American community for his claims of prehistoric African contact and diffusion of culture in Central and South America. It was generally “ignored or dismissed” by academic experts at the time and strongly criticised in detail in an academic journal, Current Anthropology, in 1997.
Van Sertima completed his master’s degree at Rutgers in 1977. He became Associate Professor of African Studies at Rutgers in the Department of Africana Studies in 1979. Also in 1979, Van Sertima founded the Journal of African Civilizations, which he exclusively edited and published for decades.
He published several annual compilations, volumes of the journal dealing with various topics of African history. His article “The Lost Sciences of Africa: An Overview” (1983) discusses early African advances in metallurgy, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, engineering, agriculture, navigation, medicine and writing. He posited that higher learning, in Africa as elsewhere, was the preserve of elites in the centres of civilisations, rendering them vulnerable in the event of the destruction of those centres and the loss of such knowledge. Van Sertima also discussed African scientific contributions in an essay for the volume African Renaissance, published in 1999 (he had first published the essay in 1983). This was a record of the conference held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 1998 on the theme of the African Renaissance.
On 7 July 1987, Van Sertima testified before a United States Congressional committee to oppose recognition of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. He said, “You cannot really conceive of how insulting it is to Native Americans … to be told they were ‘discovered’.”
1968, Caribbean Writers: Critical Essays, London & Port of Spain: New Beacon Books
1976, They Came Before Columbus, New York: Random House
1999, “The Lost Science of Africa: An Overview”, in Malegapuru William Makgoba (ed.), African Renaissance, Sandton and Cape Town, South Africa: Mafube and Tafelberg
1979–2005, The Journal of African Civilizations (anthologies published by Transaction Publishers of New Brunswick, New Jersey)
1983, Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern
1985, African Presence in Early Europe
1986, Great African Thinkers, Cheikh Anta Diop
1988, Great Black Leaders: Ancient and Modern
1988, Black Women in Antiquity
1988, Cheikh Anta Diop, New Brunswick, NJ: The Journal of African Civilizations, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1988
1988,Van Sertima before Congress: The Columbus Myth, transcript of a speech of 7 July 1987 before the US Congress Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission (Committee on Post Office and Civil Service; Subcommittee on Census and Population)
1992, The Golden Age of the Moor
1993, Egypt Revisited
1998, Early America Revisited
with Runoko Rashidi, African Presence in Early Asia, New Brunswick, NJ: The Journal of African Civilizations, 1985 (reprint 1995)