Pre-Columbian Africa-Americas contact theories

Pre-Columbian Africa-Americas contact theories propose direct contact or actual migrations by peoples from the continent of Africa with the indigenous peoples of the Americas at some stage during the pre-Columbian history of the Americas– that is, earlier than the late 15th century.

There is no compelling evidence that such trans-Atlantic contacts took place and that there are no generally accepted artifacts of African provenance in the Americas. Scholarly consensus confines such hypotheses to the realm of pseudohistory.

A subset of broader claims of Pre-Columbian oceanic contact between the Americas and other parts of the world, these claims generally contend that one or more expeditions or migrations from Africa crossed the Atlantic to arrive somewhere in the Americas, where their African cultures combined with or influenced the indigenous pre-Columbian cultures. The proponents of these theories claim to detect evidence of this African cultural influence among a variety of artifacts, historical documents, native mythologies and supposed linguistic similarities.

Less commonly, theories concern contact or influence going in the other direction, from the New World to African civilizations (such as Ancient Egypt).

Mainstream position

Claims of pre-Columbian contacts with Africa are rejected by the vast majority of archeologists and others who have examined them. Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, for example, has written: "It is quite clear from the foregoing that claims of an African presence in pre-Columbian America are purely speculative, rigidly diffusionist, and have no foundation in the artifactual, physical, and historical evidence."

Genetic and immunological studies over the past two decades have failed to yield evidence of precolumbian African contributions to populations in the Americas. Additionally, the huge mortality associated with the spread of Old World diseases introduced by Europeans suggests long-term immunological isolation.

Balabanova's "Cocaine mummies"

Some have advocated that Ancient Egyptians may have traveled to the New World. Evidence for such claims involves the mystery of the "Cocaine mummies", mummies reported to have contained coca and nicotine. The initial discovery was made by a German toxicologist by the name of Dr. Svetla Balabanova, after examining the mummy of a female priestess called Henut Taui. She states:

The first positive results, of course, were a shock for me. I had not expected to find nicotine and cocaine but that's what happened. I was absolutely sure it must be a mistake.

Follow up tests by way of the hair shaft - performed to rule out contamination - offered the same results. The significance of these finds lie with the fact that both coca and tobacco plants are indigenous to the Americas and thought not to have reached Africa until after the voyage of Christopher Colombus, in 1492. Subsequent examination of numerous Sudanese mummies undertaken by Balabanova, mirrored what was found in the mummy of Henut Taui.

Balabanova suggested that the tobacco may be accounted for since it may have also been known in China and Europe, as indicated by analysis run on human remains from those respective regions. Balabanova proposed that such plants, native to the general area may have developed independently, but since have gone extinct. Other explanations were that of possible fraud or transportation of seeds by way of an African Swallow, with the former hypothesis being discarded by curator Dr. Alfred Grimm of The Egyptian Museum in Munich, after carefully reviewing the evidence. Sources of nicotine other than tobacco and sources of cocaine in the Old World are discussed by the British biologist Duncan Edlin in A look at the Evidence for Cocaine in Mummies

Most mainstream scholars remain skeptical, seeking more conventional explanations, while many alternative historians see this as proof of ancient contact between Africa and the Americas, well before Columbus.

Olmec sculptures

The Olmec civilization of Central America, based along the Gulf Coast of south-central Mexico, existed roughly from 1200 to 400 BC. Some Olmec sculptures appear to represent faces with Negroid features. Seventeen monumental basalt stone heads, each weighing ten to forty tons, have been unearthed in Olmec sites along the Mexican Gulf Coast. José Melgar, who discovered the first colossal head at Hueyapan (now Tres Zapotes) in 1862, subsequently published two papers that attributed this head to a "Negro race". The great majority of scholars who specialize in Mesoamerican archaeology and history regard these speculations as incorrect.

African gourd

Although several examples of African plants in pre-Columbian America have been suggested, the only unequivocal example of a native African plant found in the Americas prior to Columbus is the African gourd (Lagenaria siceraria). Skeptics of human transference from Africa point to the gourd's ability to float, the fact that birds are common agents of seed dispersal, and also to the lack of evidence of any human involvement (Whittaker and Carter, 1954, 1961). A recent DNA analysis found that the variety of Lagenaria siceraria present at several sites in the Americas most closely matches the varieties found in Asia, not Africa. The authors of the report suggest "that the bottle gourd and the dog, two "utility" species, were domesticated long before any food crops or livestock species, and that both were brought to the Americas by Paleoindian populations as they colonized the New World."

Other claims have been made for certain types of bananas, cotton, beans and yams. However, these claims have been refuted by botanists. There were no bananas in the Americas prior to Columbus. The jack bean, which is claimed as an African introduction, is actually native to South America. The term "yam" is actually applied to two entirely unrelated plants, one of which is native to the Americas (the sweet potato), the other of which is native to Africa, and neither of which was found prior to Columbus in the other's continent. Finally, cotton includes a number of species, some of which are native to the Americas, others which are native to other parts of the world. There is no evidence at all of any African species of cotton in the Americas prior to Columbus. There is conclusive evidence, on the other hand, that the two principal native American species of cotton (Gossypium hirsutum and Gossypium barbadense) were cultivated by indigenous Americans long before any of the claimed contacts occurred.

Ivan van Sertima

In the book, They Came Before Columbus, African Studies professor Ivan van Sertima of Rutgers University assembled what he viewed as a large array of evidence that supported a pre-Columbian African presence in the Americas. His research has found no support in mainstream historical or archaeological communities, but remains popular among adherents of afrocentrism.

According to van Sertima, evidence of a black presence in the America was given to Columbus by the natives, who allegedly indicated to the Spanish that they were trading with black people. His book claims Columbus later recorded that “The Indians of this Española said there had come to Española a black people who have the tops of their spears made of a metal which they called gua-nin". In his book, Columbus sent samples of this to Spain to have them examined, where it was later found that of 32 parts, 18 were of gold, 6 of silver and 8 of copper; similar in composition to comparable metals of West African origin.. However, alloys of gold, silver, and copper of a range of different proportions had been made in South America for 1400 years before the arrival of Columbus. Furthermore, Africans had been smelting iron and steel for well over a thousand years by this time. Van Sertima claims the origin of the word gua-nin can be traced to the Mande languages of West Africa. However, a term similar to "guanin" is also used in a number of Arawak languages to name this alloy.

Van Sertima claims that in 1513 Vasco Nunez de Balboa encountered a group of black war captives in an Indian settlement. The Indians are said to have told Balboa that they were at war with a nearby settlement of these "dark men". This was three years after the settlement of San Sebastian near the current Panama border and Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien in Panama. According to Van Sertima, Friar Gregorio Garcia wrote an account of another encounter in a book suppressed by the Inquisition: “Here we found prisoners of war - Negroes - who were the first our people saw in the Indies.” What Van Sertima does not mention is that this would have been written in either 1607 or 1625, the dates of his two publications, generations after the first Africans were brought to the New World by the Spanish.

In his De Orbe Novo, Peter Martyr d'Anghiera mentions the presence of blacks in Panama. His theory is that these were “negro pirates of [Africa who] established themselves after the wreck of their ships in these mountains.”

Mali Empire

An account drawn from contemporary reports regarding the Mali Empire haw been cited by proponents of African contact theories to suggest that expeditions from this West African empire may have crossed the Atlantic to reach the Americas.

In his book Massaalik al-absaar fi mamaalik al-amsaar (The pathway of sight in the provinces of the kingdoms), the historian Chihab ad-Dine Abu Abbas Ahmad bin Fadhl al-Umari (1300-1384) describes an expedition into the Atlantic. He relates a story obtained from the Mamluk governor of Cairo, Ibn Amir Hajib. While Mansa Musa was visiting Cairo as part of his pilgramate to Mecca, Ibn Amir Hajib asked how he had succeeded to the throne, and this is what Ibn Amir Hajib reported he was told:

The ruler who preceded me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth (meaning the Atlantic): he wanted to reach that (end) and was determined to pursue his plan. So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, and many others full of gold, water and provisions sufficient for several years. He ordered the captain not to return until they had reached the other end of the ocean, or until he had exhausted the provisions and water. So they set out on their journey. They were absent for a long period, and, at last just one boat returned. When questioned the captain replied: 'O Prince, we navigated for a long period, until we saw in the midst of the ocean a great river which flowing massively. My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me, and they were drowned in the great whirlpool and never came out again. I sailed back to escape this current.' But the Sultan would not believe him. He ordered two thousand boats to be equipped for him and his men, and one thousand more for water and provisions. Then he conferred the regency on me for the term of his absence, and departed with his men, never to return nor to give a sign of life.

A claim has been made that fleet landed in Brazil in around 1312, in the place now called Recife and that Pernambuco is allegedly an aberration of the Mande name for the rich gold fields of the Mali Empire.

However, no concrete evidence of any African artifacts, let alone the remains of even one of the 2,000 ships, has ever been found in the Americas.

Nautical feasibility

In 1969, Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian adventurer crossed the Atlantic ocean from the North African port of Safi, arriving in Barbados, West Indies. His craft was made by local Africans of indigenous papyrus. For his journey he relied on the southbound Canary Current off the coast of the Iberian peninsula and the western coast of Africa, and the Northeast Tradewinds that blow westward towards the Caribbean region. The voyage has been suggested to indicate that it was technically possible to cross the Atlantic in medieval western Africa.

See also



  • Melgar, Jose (1869) "Antigüedades mexicanas, notable escultura antigua", in Boletín de la Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística, época 2, vol. 1, pp. 292-297, Mexico.
  • Melgar, Jose (1871) "Estudio sobre la antigüedad y el origen de la Cabeza Colosal de tipo etiópico que existe en Hueyapan del cantón de los Tuxtlas" in Boletín de la Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística, época 2, vol. 3, pp. 104-109; Mexico.
  • Stirling, Matthew (1967) "Early History of the Olmec Problem", in Dumbarton Oaks Conference on the Olmec, E. Benson, ed., Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.
  • Whitaker, T. W. and G. F. Carter. 1954. "Oceanic Drift of Gourds: Experimental Observations". 'American Journal of Botany 41'(19): 697-700.
  • Whitaker, T. W. and G. F. Carter.1961. "Note on the Longevity of Seed of Lagenaria siceraria (mol.) Standl. After Floating in Water." Torrey Botanical Club Bulletin 88: 104-106.

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