Ivan Gladstone Van Sertima (26 January 1935 – 25 May 2009) was a British historian, linguist and anthropologist at Rutgers University in the United States. He was noted for his controversial Afrocentric theory of pre-Columbian contact between Africa and the Americas.
He was born in Kitty Village, Guyana, when Guyana was still a British colony. He remained a British citizen. Little is known of his childhood. His father, a trade union leader, was apparently named Frank Obermuller Van Sertima and was referenced in Guyana Genealogical and Biographical Society as one of “some 131 politicians” who, on “Monday April 27, 1953 … [had]presented themselves as Candidates for the Representation of the People of the Colony of British Guiana.”
Ivan Van Sertima 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 producing an array of creative writing, Van Sertima completed his undergraduate studies in African languages and literature at SOAS in 1969, where he graduated with honors. During his studies he learned Swahili and Hungarian.
He worked for several years in Great Britain as a journalist, doing weekly broadcasts to the Caribbean and Africa. In doing field work in Africa, he compiled a dictionary of Swahili legal terms.In 1970 Van Sertima immigrated to the United States, where he entered Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey for graduate work.
He began his teaching career at Rutgers University as an instructor in 1972. In 1977 he completed his master’s degree. He was Associate Professor of African Studies in the Department of Africana Studies. As editor of the Journal of African Civilizations and author of numerous books, he has addressed topics in literature, linguistics, anthropology and history. He wrote several books in which he argued that the Ancient Egyptians were black.
His 1976 book, They Came Before Columbus, was a bestseller and achieved widespread fame for his claims of prehistoric African influences in Central and South America. It was criticized by academic specialists.
Van Sertima also treated the topic of African scientific contributions in his essay for the volume African Renaissance, published in 1999. This was a record of the conference held in Johannesburg, South Africa in September 1998 on the theme of the African Renaissance. His article was entitled The Lost Sciences of Africa: An Overview. In it he presents early African advances in metallurgy, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, engineering, agriculture, navigation, medicine and writing. He claimed that higher learning, in Africa as elsewhere, was the preserve of elites in the centres of civilizations, rendering them very vulnerable in the event (as happened in Africa) of the destruction of those centers.
On July 7, 1987 Van Sertima appeared before a United States Congressional committee in opposition to crediting the discovery of America to Christopher Columbus.
Van Sertima’s work has been criticized by academics for making ill-founded Afrocentric claims. A 1997 Journal of Current Anthropology article criticized in detail many elements of Van Sertima’s 1976 book They Came Before Columbus. The book had not earlier received a thorough professional academic review. They stated that in claiming African origins for prehistoric Olmec culture (in present-day Mexico), Van Sertima had ignored the work of Central American researchers. They stated no evidence of a prehistoric African influence or presence had been found in controlled archeological excavations in the New World. The reviewers also wrote that Olmec stone heads only superficially appear to be African and did not resemble the Nubian populations which Van Sertima claimed as their originators. They ruled as “fallacious” his claims for the diffusion of pyramid building and mummification. Additionally they accused Van Sertima’s cultural outlook of being disparaging to Native American achievements. Van Sertima wrote a response to be included in the article (as is standard practice) but withdrew it because of the journal’s policy that reprints must include the entire article and would have had to include a reponse (written but not published) to his response. Instead Van Sertima replied to his critics in another publication.
In a New York Times 1977 review of Van Sertima’s works, British scholar Glyn Daniel labelled Van Sertima’s work as “ignorant rubbish”, concluding that the writings of Van Sertima (and Barry Fell, whom he was also reviewing) “give us badly argued theories based on fantasies”. Dean R. Snow, a professor of anthropology, in 1981 wrote that Van Sertima “uses the now familiar technique of stringing together bits of carefully selected evidence, each surgically removed from the context that would give it a rational explanation”. Snow continued, “The findings of professional archaeologists and physical anthropologists are misrepresented so that they seem to support the [Van Sertima] hypothesis.”
In response to Glyn Daniels’ review, Dr. Clarence Weiant, who worked in Mexican archeology for the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution, and who participated in the excavation of the first giant heads in Mexico, wrote to the N.Y. Times that Dr. Ivan Van Sertima’s work represents six or seven years of meticulous research based upon archeology, egyptology, African history, oceanography, astronomy, botany, rare Arabic and Chinese manuscripts, the letters and journals of early American explorers and the observations of physical anthropologists. Dr. Weiant said that he’s convinced of the soundness of Van Sertima’s conclusions. In 1998 Dr Van Sertima countered Journal of Current Anthropology criticisms.
Marriage and family
Van Sertima married Maria Nagy in 1964; they had one son. He remarried at least once and had three more children. In the later years of his life, Van Sertima reportedly suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
Van Sertima retired in 2006. He died on 25 May 2009 aged 74.He was survived by his wife and four adult children.
His widow, Jacqueline, said she will continue to publish the Journal of African Civilization and plans to publish a book of his poetry.
- Malegapuru William Makgoba, ed., African Renaissance, Mafube and Tafelberg, Sandton and Cape Town, 1999
- Runoko Rashidi and Ivan Van Sertima, ed., African Presence in Early Asia, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1995 (1985)
- Ivan Van Sertima, ed., African Presence in early Europe, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1985
- ____ Black Women in Antiquity, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988
- ____ Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1983
- ____ Early America Revisited, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1998
- ____ Egypt Revisited, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1993
- ____ The Golden Age of the Moor, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1992
- ____ Great African Thinkers, Cheikh Anta Diop, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1986
- ____ Great Black Leaders: Ancient and Modern, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988
- ____ They Came Before Columbus, New York: Random House, 1976
- ____ Early America revisited, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988
- ____Cheikh Anta Diop, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988
- ____Van Sertima before Congress: the Columbus myth United States. Congress. House. Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. Subcommittee on Census and Population; Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission. Highland Park, NJ : Audio Division, Journal of African Civilizations, 1988.
Legacy and honors
- 1981 – Clarence L. Holte Prize for They Came Before Columbus, Twenty-First Century Foundation
- 2004 – Inducted into Rutgers African-American Alumni Hall of Fame