Van Sertima’s Mummies or The Fruits of Careless Research…

Reply to a Critic

Recently, I received a response to the book review I posted on Ivan Van Sertima’s, They Came Before Columbus.  This person was very passionate about defending the Afrocentric version of alternative history and emailed me an excerpt from his later book, Early America Revisited, in which Van Sertima replies to his critics: scientists, archeologist and professionals from different, but related, fields of study.  I must say that his rebuttals prove quite an interesting read and encouraged me to further research, which I enjoy immensely.  However, I must also say that the additional information just didn’t help Ivan’s case.

First, I must address the concern regarding my “disrespect for the recently departed”.  I admit that I am not big into groupie-like behavior.  I don’t follow other folks’ lives or schedules so I wasn’t aware Mr. Van Sertima had passed away.  However, at the risk of sounding insensitive, I will say that thousands of people die on a daily basis and their death doesn’t make the beliefs they espouse any more convincing than when they lived- nor does it legitimize their opinions.  This way of thinking is the basis of many, if not all, of our major world religions, ennit?  The elevation of opinion to unquestionable doctrine, to be accepted on faith and scrutinized only at the peril of being labeled “blasphemous”, or in this case “disrespectful” or “racist”, is incredibly limiting to serious deliberation and discussion, to say the least.

Is that the point?  If it is, it is not good scholarly form, it’s dogma.  Faith.  Religion- not history nor science.

Personally, it’s not in me to internalize spoon fed information and accept what’s shared only on the basis of the speaker’s credentials, passion or conviction- not even when I really want to believe it.  The skeptic in me demands complete self-honesty; I do my own research and decide if I want to accept the information based on the evidence I can find, and if that evidence is shaky, whether I am willing to accept the opinion on faith.  I am all for accepting on faith, but with open eyes.  Another person’s ideas and passions are a good starting off point, but any belief system, group or organization that demands blind devotion and unquestioning acquiescence is suspect in my book.

I would also respectfully point out that while I am arguing Van Sertima’s opinions and question his “research”, I am not denigrating the man himself.  This is not a personal attack.  His opinions are open to criticism- dead or alive.

There is much to be said about the powers of examination, deduction, comparison, deliberation and contemplation- in other words, thinking.  Unfortunately, the skills of critical thinking are not something taught in schools so folks today are mostly trained to be good followers.  This lack is a convenient advantage for the government, corporations, pseudo-scientists and the like since, as long as things sound good to the demographic in question, they have a source of undiscriminating, unquestioning support.  In the meanwhile, half truths, the lack of complete information and questionable materials leave people without the opportunity to come to their own conclusions and possibly live, and propagate, lies.

Consider that the Taino would still be extinct if it weren’t for the skills of critical thinking and questioning the status quo.

The particular issue of this person’s concern was my mentioning the Chinchorro mummy being the oldest in the world.  For the benefit of my edification, they provided me a quote from page 125 of the above mentioned book, Early America Revisited:

The Chinchorro mummy is dated 5,860 B.C. plus or minus 180 (Allison, 1985) but the infant mummy of Uan Muhuggiag is dated 7,438 B.C. plus or minus 220 (Professor E. Tongiorgi of the University of Pisa Carbon 14 assays).

What was not included in the quote emailed to me, but I found upon reading the book, was that he also mentions that the Uan Muhuggiag mummy had been dated by another Professor- Professor Mori- who had carbon dated it at 3,500 B.C. but that the University of Pisa had “extended the age of the mummy by taking other factors into account”.

He cites the book Mummies, Diseases and Ancient Cultures as his source of information on the age of this African mummy; “7,438 BC” as per his quote.  So I looked up the aforementioned book and on page 281  it says the following:

“The eastern side of the excavation revealed a clear stratification caused by alternating layers of coals, ashes and fibrous matter.  Under the lowest layer of coals, the sandstone floor showed an intentional circular excavation  25 cm in diameter but only 3 cm deep.  Here, under a layer of randomly distributed vegetable fibers, the mummy of a child was found (Fig 12.13), almost completely wrapped in an envelope of animal  skin and bearing a necklace of little rings made from the shells of ostrich eggs. (Arkell et al.  1961)

Dating by the radiocarbon method was carried out by Professor E. Tongiorgi at the University of Pisa using two different types of sample: the lowest coal layer of the deposit and the envelope of animal skin.  The first sample was 7438+/-220 years old, and the second 5405+/-180 years old.”

Comparing the information Ivan Van Sertima has provided us for analysis gives these details:

  • the carbon dating of the Uan Muhuggiag mummy available was done by Professor Mori and was not being considered
  • Mori’s dating was 3,500 BC
  • the Chinchorro is dated at 5,860 BC
  • Tongiorgi appears not to have dated the mummy
  • Tongiorgi dated the coal surrounding the mummy (7,438 years old, +/- 220 years) and the skin the mummy was wrapped in (5,405 years old, +/- 180 years)
  • we assume the child was buried wrapped in the animal skin since it was almost completely wrapped in it when found
  • there is a significant difference between the dating of the coal and the animal skin, the coal being older by about 2,033 years

Revisiting Ivan’s quote, he says:  “…the infant mummy of Uan Muhuggiag is dated 7,438 BC plus or minus 220”.

You don’t need a Phd to notice that Van Sertima is presenting the Uan Muhuggiag mummy’s age according to the date of the coal lining the grave site, completely disregarding the original date provided by Professor Mori as well as the dating of the animal skin envelope it was wrapped in, which common sense would dictate, is a better marker of the mummy’s age.

But let’s say it was an honest mistake, as my passionate reader suggested in their email: “Everyone makes mistakes.  Van Sertima was human and errors are to be expected.”  We can look at this slip as a mistake, of course.  We could also suggest that the animal skin may have been placed on the body 2,000 years after burial to account for the huge time discrepancy…

Further analysis of the information provided reveals that Professor Tongiori dated the coal at 7,438 years of age and not 7,438 BC as Ivan claims.  This is another 2,000 year technicality, another 2,000 year mistake.  When something is dated 11 years of age, it’s just that, 11 years old.  My child is 11 years old.  Something dated 11 BC is an antique.

Moreover, perusing other chapters in Van Sertima’s reference, we can also consider the information regarding the archeological record of mummification in Peru, South America.  This comment is found in the second edition of Mummies, Diseases and Ancient Cultures (1998), on page 154.  The last sentence of the second paragraph states the following:

“…the archological record of mummification, stated as 6000 years old in the first edition of this volume, has now been extended back another 3000 years.”

What this means is that, according to Van Sertima’s own references, the practice of mummification is much older in the Americas than it is in Africa.  These practices, being similar, may just have been transferred to Africa from the Americas and not the other way around, as Van Sertima and Afrocentric history postulates.  Or maybe, lo and behold, just maybe, each culture developed the technique of mummification on it’s own!

Within all this analysis, I am sure I have overlooked details, but I am just one person researching the  information provided and analyzing the evidence found from as many angles as I can.  This is what critical thinking is all about.  Imagine how much more information could be culled from details if there were a group of us seeking unbiased truth, asking the tough questions, not seeking to impose a perspective, but using our various points of view to create more questions and further analysis.  That would be awesome!

Instead, we are sitting on our high chairs, being spoon fed information and not questioning where and how this information came about.

Van Sertima ignored the opportunity to review his own work when he had the chance.   It’s sad that he chose to stand on shaky evidence, evidence that did little to bolster his opinion and instead left it seeming even more questionable.  It’s sad that he had a good idea and chose not to persue it till the end,  but instead, joined in the mudslinging of his critics; trampling upon his own dignity and damaging his position in the process.   In reading his book Early America Revisited, I noticed he allowed his ego to react to the criticism instead of fulfilling his scholarly duty.  He forgot his responsibility to us, those he was seeking to educate.  Consider Richard Hofstadter’s words: “A university’s essential character is that of being a center of free inquiry and criticism-a thing not to be sacrificed for anything else.” This “anything else” includes pride and ego, both which are over-evident in Van Sertima’s last book on this topic.  A sad legacy to leave behind, a legacy that speaks volumes.

As was mentioned before, Van Sertima was human and thus prone to err.  I am also aware that, although he wrote about a variety of subjects his studies were in linguistics and literature.  He was a professor and a writer, not an archeologist nor an anthropologist nor a scientist nor a historian.  He bases his conclusions on the work of other people and when we do that, we need to make sure that the information is as up to date, as objective and as detailed as possible.  We need to look at the information we are basing ourselves on as critically as possible, questioning even our own motives and listening to those who oppose our views- critics can be our greatest allies.

Otherwise it would seem, as it does to me now, that Van Sertima attempted to manipulate the evidence to support his point.  At the least, he used poor scientific reasoning; pseudo-science.

It’s also interesting to note that Van Sertima’s editors, in all their infinite wisdom, didn’t catch the details that were caught in this simple, unpolished, untutored analysis- them being scholars after all…  but, like  I’ve said before, a Phd  doesn’t seem to get you much these days.

As an indigenous woman, I understand my responsibility to the education of  our children.  They are the future of our people.  As a person of mixed ancestry, I understand that the truth of our history needs to be  investigated, scrutinized and the truth, whatever that may be, told.  These topics are much too important to our identity as the original inhabitants of Turtle Island, those of us who are mixed and humanity at large, to let petty ego trips and false pride take the helm in our words and actions.  We need to be able to disassociate from our personal feelings and opinions enough so as to examine the evidence as thoroughly and as clearly as possible so we can come to our own truth instead of allowing history to repeat itself.

I rather be proud of the true accomplishments of my ancestors than to feel pride over a history that is birthed from fantastic speculation and the desire to make something better than what it may seem to me.

If what we are seeking is truth, then ego has no place in history.

(c) A. Nanu Pagan, August 2009

Author: Nanu

A Taino woman of a certain age, exploring decolonization from the perspective of the First People to meet, and survive, Western invaders and Manifest Destiny. What I share is true to me. I encourage everyone to research to THEIR OWN satisfaction.

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