Those African Olmecs: or the Case of Pro-fitting the Pre-Columbian Past with Our Politics

Author: Lawrence Waldron

Olmec mask, 900-600 BCE, Rio Pesquero, Veracruz, Mexico. Jadeite

As a professor of Pre-Columbian, Latin American, Caribbean, Asian and African art—what some call “non-Western” art history—I am aware of what I sound like when I teach, say, the art history of ancient Egypt. I tend to pair Egypt with its sister-culture farther up the Nile (and deeper inside Africa), rather than treating it as some kind of archaic stepping stone on the way to the canonical binary of Greece and Rome. For “extra-Western” scholars (as I have taken to calling us, just to be provocative), Egypt had a vibrant life of its own on the Nile and would never have deigned to consider itself some Ruskinian protomorphic ancestor of Western art or history. In short, Egyptians weren’t just there to function as ancestors to the kouros, which is a simplistic marble spin-off of their much more naturalistic art anyway. The West is quite used to throwing a lasso across the Mediterranean to hitch Egypt to its wagon. But as Prof. Lynn Mackenzie has often said, try as we might with all our harnessed Grecian marble horses, we “cannot drag Egypt out of Africa” (Non-Western Art: A Brief Guide, Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, ix).

Imagine being flattened out into a mere prototype of somebody else, viewed completely from the lens of their personal history rather than your own. Imagine having much of your history ignored or even erased so the manufactured mystery, the man-made lacuna could serve as a tabula rasa on which foreigners could scrawl their own mytho-history. Native Americans don’t have to imagine this. They know it all too well.

My approach to Egypt elicits some interesting reactions. The majority of students start out eager for more information about this ancient place about which they have heard their whole lives. Many become fascinated, if unsettled, by all the art and history they did not know about Nubia, the civilization beyond the First Cataract with almost ten times as many (though smaller) pyramids as Egypt. When I firmly locate Egypt inside Africa, along the Nile, and alongside Nubia, the occasional Eurocentric student rolls his eyes or sits there smirking derisively while Afrocentrists perk up in their seats.

As I point out (a) the deficiencies of our textbook for its hasty gloss of Nubia (with that lonesome, token image of Pharaoh Taharqo), and (b) the nineteenth century Western ideologies and hapless events that caused our museums to be stockpiled with Egyptian objects while not knowing what to do with art and artifacts from that empire of unambiguously ‘black’ pharaohs just to the south, eyes open (and I hope, minds too) to more than just African art history. We discover there’s quite a lot of politics and passion behind the ideas and the money that informs our current museology of Africa. Occasionally I get an “mm-hmm” from a student that threatens to turn into an “amen” as I hold up the goggles through which the West looks at Egypt, the rest of Africa, and itself—with itself conveniently placed betwixt the former and the latter.

When I illustrate how the Nubia-deficient floorplan of our museums, creates an irreconcilable divide in the public imagination between Egypt and the rest of the African continent, ideas for term papers begin to gel quietly. But it is only when I show statues of the pharaoh Hatshepsut that our taciturn students burst out in full, spontaneous discussion. By then the classroom is already in a talkative mood pursuant to the many gender issues raised by the female king’s well-illustrated reign and pharaoh Tuthmoses III’s possible motivations for erasing her, his aunt/stepmother, from history. As I line up Hatshepsut’s statue with the Caucasoid image of the pharaoh from the cover of Joyce Tyldesley’s biography of her, then throw up a photo of Jane Seymour, who seems to be of the type modeled on the Tyldesley book cover, and then contrast those images with pictures of supermodels Waris and Iman, some audible gasps and groans turn to an “ah-hah!” moment. Students cut loose in discussion and debate.

 139_3934Hatshepsutcomparison  Hatshepsut2012  139_3934Hatshepsutcomparison copy 2
British actress Jane Seymour, c. 1973 (in her Solitaire role from the James Bond film Live and Let Die, in which she finds herself co-opted by black, Voodoo-wielding criminal elements) Statue of Pharaoh Hatshepsut (in one of the feminine portraits from the early part of her reign), New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, Egypt, crystalline/indurated limestone Somali model Iman, c. 1975 (not long after her first arrival in New York, following her “discovery” by photographer Peter Beard, and not long before this pioneering “regal”, “striking” and, of course, “exotic beauty” would revolutionize the international fashion scene)

But what does all of this have to do with pre-Columbian art and the Olmec in particular? The answer has to do with our subjective and politicized understanding of ancient people and the often proprietary ways in which we identify with them.

It seems that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people think that the Olmec of Mesoamerica were black people from Africa. It seems that another lasso has been thrown, this time across the entire Atlantic Ocean, to hitch La Venta to the kingdoms of the Niger and the Nile. But to understand how this sort of belief takes root, how complete strangers end up seeing themselves in another people and locating them on their ancestral line, we might consider further how the same sort of thinking has hitched Egypt to Western history, after unmooring it from the continent to which it belongs culturally, historically, artistically.

By the time I compare that Hatshepsut statue to photos of Jane Seymour and Iman and try to speak over the din about how the West conceives of ancient Kemet (i.e., Egypt), I discover that I have drawn out several kinds of students. One group consists of keen enthusiasts who now suspect they might have been bamboozled by hundreds of hours of History Channel documentaries with European, Middle Eastern and even South Asian actors playing the pharaohs, with cheesy belly dancing music playing in the background as some Englishman in a blue pharaonic crown and spray-on tan contemplates a papyrus scroll. The other demographic is a small one but with considerable diversity among them—the Afrocentrists.

The majority of Afrocentrists just think its common sense that I should present Egypt and Nubia together as I do and as far as they are concerned ‘it’s about damned time!’ They sit and take copious notes. I am happy to oblige them in this case. But a few Afrocentrists constitute a subgroup from whom I sometimes haven’t heard all semester, a group who feel themselves disengaged or even ‘historically’ cut off from much of the history I am teaching. Some of them do their fair share of reading but from sources many would consider questionable. In fact the things they are reading sometimes contribute to their sense of alienation.

As I speak abstractly about the ‘up-streaming’ of today’s Arab ethnicities and today’s race politics into Egypt’s ancient Nilotic past I discover that a few students have stopped listening to me—not because they disagree with me but because they agree with me a little too much. At least they think they agree with what I am saying. What I’ve said so far gives them all the confirmation they need.

To get their attention one last time I show multiple images, in multiple materials, of Tutankhamun. In the naturalism for which the Amarna period is famous the faces of Tut range in style but portray his slightly Tiger Woods-looking features with remarkable consistency. Beside these reliable portraits of the boy king I show the supposedly ‘scientific’ facial reconstruction of his features based on the skull of his mummy. This is the famous National Geographic reconstruction that ignores the realism of the many Amarna portraits (and how they would also fit the skull) and opts instead for a face and complexion derived from today’s Egyptian Arabs whose ancestors invaded the country 2,000 years after Tut. Like a dying flicker from the aft deck of a passing ship in the night, I hold the ethnocentrists attention one last time. Like most people they are more easily compelled by visuals and narratives than by abstract exegesis on making and remaking history in our image and likeness.

 Tutanhkamun_comparison  Tutanhkamun_comparison copy  Tutanhkamun_comparison copy 2
Sculpture of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (in which he bears strong resemblances to his grandmother Tiye and his parents Akhenaten and Nefertiti), New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, Egypt, painted and gilded wood Funerary mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, gold, lapis lazuli and other materials Conjectural facial reconstruction of Pharaoh Tutankhamun by The Arab Republic of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and the United States of America’s National Geographic Society, 2005

In what I have shown, far more than in what I have said, about the West’s and the Arab’s pro-fitting of Egypt to service their latter-day socio-politics, an Afrocentric subgroup of conspiracy theorists finds great encouragement. They are glad to have this Afro-Caribbean professor with the Ph.D. in pre-Columbian art and architecture on their side. So imagine their disappointment when they learn of my position on the Olmec! 

The conspiracy theorists get their history of ancient Egypt from online chat rooms and singular, controversial authors of multiple volumes who, like their Eurocentric nemesis, Sir Wallace Budge, never seem to go out of print…regardless of how spurious and circumstantial their ‘findings’ are. Students of this subgroup often think that the Egyptians were uniformly black (despite their location at a crossroads on the northeastern edge of the continent) and they wave a hand dismissingly at the fact that the Greeks were already in the pharaonic bloodline by the time Cleopatra was born.

I suppose they do have a point in wielding North America’s racial categories against its academicians in asserting that Cleopatra too was black. Because in America blackness is a very simple issue. One drop of West/Central African blood can make you black by default. In fact the only time blackness is ever “complicated” in America is when Americans argue about the ancient Egyptians. Because of the ‘one drop rule’ our standards today would render as black all the part-Greek, part-Near Eastern, Nilotic and Bantu people in northern Egypt. If the West chooses to look at Cleopatra’s Greek percentage instead of the rest of her, that’s the West’s fault for putting on hypocritical blinders not only to clever Cleo’s lack of white purity (and therefore ‘default blackness’) but to itself and how it would otherwise simplistically construct her blackness. In other words if Cleopatra and her brother, Tut and his young wife or Menkaure and Khamerernebty were driving down the Jersey Turnpike in a white Escalade today they could easily get stopped by state troopers, felt up in front of each other and passing traffic, and released without an apology or an explanation precisely because they were ‘black enough.’ Whether Halle Berry black, Skip Gates black or Sam Jackson black, black is black in America.

But since I myself am not a North American and have deep suspicions of the Western concept of “race” (which is the lingua franca of both Anglo- and Afro-American social discourse) I do not subscribe to the region’s binary racial categories. I suppose people like me are slippery characters to both groups. You never know what we’re going to think about the Egyptians or the Olmec. In fact the same mirror I hold up to preposterous and ironic Eurocentric notions of Egyptian caucasitude I hold up to Afrocentric beliefs that half the ancient Near East was also black (‘just look at all those waves and naps you showed us in their hair, professor’); that Shakyamuni Buddha’s tight curls clearly indicate that he was black; that pyramids worldwide are the result of diffusion from Egypt (even though some Andean pyramids are coeval with and even older than the ones on the Nile); and that the Olmecs were Africans.

“Look at those colossal heads! Look at those lips, those noses! How could you tell me they aren’t black?” people ask rhetorically. Heads shake disappointedly as I insist that the Olmec were American Indians, inventors of vulcanized rubber, and whose ancestors were the very Amerindians who selectively bred a wild, almost useless grass into maize, the high yield starch that would change the world. Sometimes a stalwart conspiracy theorist becomes frustrated when I concede, “Sure the colossal Olmec heads look very African but all the rest of Olmec sculpture looks downright Korean, at least Chinese. So East Asians can stake the same claim that you are based on the same kinds of evidence—eyeballing some compelling visual resemblances and propping those up with a few titillating stories about lost fleets coming to America. In fact, since there are many times more Asian-looking sculptures from the Olmec than African-looking ones, the Koreans would have a better case…based on visual inferences anyway.”


Olmec colossal head/Monument 1 (representing a king in ball game head gear), 12th-9th c. BCE, La Venta (Tabasco), Mexico, basalt Olmec cleft-headed maskette (collected by Aztec antiquarians in the 15th century), c. 6th c. BCE, Mexico, jadeite Olmec baby figure, 12th-9th c. BCE, possibly las Bocas (Puebla), Mexico, ceramic

After class or in my office I show dozens of Asian-looking Olmec sculptures (we never have time to really hash out pre-Columbian material properly even in the most progressive undergrad curricula of the American northeast). I show sculptures in wood, ceramic and stone, including jadeite (yes, jade was the Olmec’s favorite stone so I am steeling myself for the actual future wave of Chinese, Korean and Japanese students who will insist that the Olmec were Asians!). Picture after picture leads to increasingly confused looks. The seventeen “Negroid” colossal heads find themselves grossly outnumbered by ‘Asian Olmecs.’

Interestingly, Olmec sculpture uses exaggeration of features (features known to be possessed by American Indians) to arrive at faces that are more so stereotypically Asian or African than most Asian or African people actually appear. In short, Olmec sculptures seem to out-Asian actual Asian faces and out-African most actual African faces. In the heightened expressiveness of Olmec sculpture the fleshy noses of the colossal heads are flattened into the surrounding cheeks, and the eyes of masks and ceramic sculptures are made into long narrow slits. These are visual devices that we might mistake for ethnic caricatures if we weren’t busy making another mistake instead—that of claiming the Olmec as our own. What are we to do with these Chinese-eyed, African-lipped, and some say Norse-bearded Olmec? Perhaps the Olmec were not here for us to come along and do anything ‘with’ at all. Perhaps the Olmec were just themselves, living their lives, lives rooted deep in ancient American landscapes, cultures and genetic haplogroups.

Despite all the anthropological and art historical evidence I offer to the contrary, the African Olmecs theory dies hard. Its exponents in my classes (and among some of my friends and colleagues from non-pre-Columbian disciplines) have sometimes looked a little puzzled after all my Asiatic Olmec imagery. Right there and then I have felt like I was making progress in my attempt to simultaneously impart enthusiastic visual inquiry on the one hand and cool, dispassionate visual analysis on the other. Hot passion tempered by cool procedure might seem like some narrow, even idiosyncratic aesthetic of how scholarship should proceed but I draw my example from nature itself and the many processes in it that produce enduring results. From stellar formation to volcanism, the hot creative/inspiration is tempered by the cold editorial/analytical. The Cambrian Explosion is sorted out by the mundane, often brutal, process of natural selection. In this way it is the verifiable, tested findings and profound questions/problems that remain as the basis for future enquiry.

But for people who thrive on mysteries and mysticism this is a decidedly boring approach. For them overconfident scholars threaten to stifle all wonder. It is the so-called experts who are stubborn not they. Though the universe is full of enough mysteries for stubborn scholars and stubborn mystics alike, each group feels threatened by the other. In both groups there are those who bring assumptions, even faith, to their research, so that some beliefs are sacrosanct and immune to the research itself. Such research can only go so far as it might confirm belief. This is more so using research than committing to research. Research then becomes a handmaiden of pre-existing urges, convictions, untested assumptions and articles of faith, instead of a herald of new discoveries. There are many different kinds of research out there in books, journals, websites and chat rooms. And the research landscape is complicated further by scholars who themselves can slip and start switching back and forth between leading and following their research. The inconsistent results are then left to be sorted out by future generations.


Olmec Monument 4, 12th -9th c. BCE, La Venta (Tabasco), Mexico, basalt Tour guide “Jorge” haplessly exhibiting a similar profile as Olmec Monument 1’s, (photographed 2004), Parque de la Venta (Tabasco), Mexico Olmec funerary mask, c. 9th c. BCE, Rio Pesquero (Veracruz), Mexico, serpentine

After all the research I have shown students over the years regarding the varied Olmec approaches to the human subject the seeds of some new conspiracy theory has still sometimes pushed a stubborn tendril through my stratum of visual, archaeological and ethnographic evidence—like the corn stalk sprouting from the cleft skull of an Olmec jaguar baby! Even when I show my photo of the Mexican tour guide, “Jorge,” from Parque de la Venta who looks remarkably like the Olmec colossal heads otherwise described as “Negroid,” my power to stimulate and convince seems to slip through my fingers. I am unable to effect the same revelation as with the Egyptians and Nubians, or with Hatshepsut and Iman for that matter. For my audience is as stubborn as those few Eurocentrists left in class who think I am propounding some kind of fraud with my Meroitic pyramids and Negroid images from the Old Kingdom and Amarna period.

So the battle over the variously defined negritude of the Olmec rages on with a CNN-type mismatched stalemate between avid believers and stalwart scholars. Pre-Columbianists and other scholars who argue against the negritude of the Olmec are in a position well known to those evolutionary scientists with their complex explanations of natural selection and adaptation quixotically arguing against zealous creationists and their hallowed scriptural incantations; they are in a similar position to that of the climatologist with his boring annual charts tilting against smooth-talking industrialists who render as mysterious the connection between trillions of tons of pollution since the Industrial Revolution and the composition of our atmosphere and oceans. Such pre-Columbianists are not just arguing against faith but a range of vested interests.

As with the earnest devotee and the cynical industrialist alike, there is a vested interest among some Afrocentrists (and others) in believing that the Olmec were of African extraction. A lot of people feel elevated by this ambitious belief in ancient connections to and influences upon the ancient Americans. Like many beliefs, the tenet that ‘the Olmecs were black’ is born more so of needs and anxieties, and not borne out by many facts (not yet anyway—I’m willing to keep an open mind). And to argue against the ‘African Olmecs’ article of faith is to risk being seen as some kind of myopic bigot who seeks to deprive the believers of some part of the gloried black past, even if you yourself are black. I’m conscious that I might be considered pathetically misguided by all my years of academic training, if not blatantly racist. After all, the rational approach to research is so balefully Eurocentric isn’t it?

Is it?

The problem with seeing the rational as patently academic and Western is that it denies that rationalism is what produced the impeccable engineering of those very pyramids in Egypt and Nubia that are supposed to have inspired the ones all over the world. The Nilotic religions might have been largely mystery religions but when the time came to erect monuments in their honor, the Nilotic peoples resorted to their knowledge of what we know today as mathematics and science. Indeed architecture is proof of the universal rationalism of human beings, even if there are definitely some ethnic variations on the rational. If a structure is not rational, it will fall on people and kill them. So all human beings are rational at least in some way essential to their survival, and thus all human cultures have a rational aspect.

But from years of arguing with people who are wont to take intuitive leaps across the Atlantic and insist that visual resemblances and some legendary transoceanic connections with Africa constitute better evidence than all the anthropology and art history conducted thus far in Mexico I have been forced to change my tack. From having heard on more than one occasion that resistance to the “obvious” truth of Olmec negritude makes one a stodgy, close-minded, perhaps Eurocentric (even racist) shill, I’ve started speaking in a language that ‘believers’ understand.

Believers don’t only like pictures. They like narrative. One kilo of narrative, spliced with a few images, has a street value five times that of mere anthropological evidence. In my narrative tack, I trace the historiographic and other methodological approaches by which the African Olmecs theory has come about and gained traction. I have put a human face on the theory itself—a man with a belief, an agenda, a method, and the credentials to pull off a coup even in some parts of respected academia. I have started calling the African Olmecs theory “the Van Sertima theory” in honor of its arguably most widely read exponent.

But I do not replace qualified assumptions with articles of faith as often happens in the Van Sertima theory. Rather I am content to have students, non-pre-Columbianist colleagues, and the public in general consider all that is missing from Van Sertima’s theory. This is something that Professor Ivan Van Sertima himself tried to do with the body of pre-Columbian scholarship he encountered in the 1970s when his theory first started impacting the public imagination—he cast doubt upon the existing scholarship and challenged its assumptions. Scholarship, after all, thrives on questions, so we can ask the same kinds of provocative questions of Van Sertima that he asked of mid-twentieth century pre-Columbianists.

My aim in asking these kinds of questions is not simply to win an argument or outcompete the wily African Olmecs theory with the orthodox Amerindian Olmec theory. It is to point out the real, systemic problems with this Afrocentric assertion, which is growing in popularity far more quickly than any evidence supporting it. In the fact, the popularity of this titillating theory even seems to be outpacing the massive strides in pre-Columbian research made since Van Sertima’s 1970s. In the process of pointing out the weaknesses of the Van Sertima theory I have started surrounding the theory with the same sort of uncertainty, or ‘mystery,’ as the exponents of the theory have created around the overwhelming, ever-expanding evidence of the indigeneity of the Olmec.

In the next installment, I will proceed to ask some hard questions of Van Sertima and his theory. I am currently re-reading a reprint of Van Sertima’s 1976 bestseller They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America to make sure I don’t miss any of those breakneck intuitive leaps he was so fond of making.


Lawrence Waldron holds a Ph.D. in Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture from the City University of New York’s Graduate Center where he pursued secondary concentrations in “Non-Western” art (i.e., African, Asian, Native North American and Pacific Island topics), and Latin American art. He has published and presented at conferences several essays on the arts of the pre-Columbian, colonial and modern Caribbean; Islamic Spain and Africa; and ancient Indonesia and the Philippines. His dissertation on the early ceramics of the pre-Columbian Caribbean is scheduled for publication in 2015. Waldron has taught art history at several branches of the City University of New York, and most recently at Montserrat College of Art in Massachusetts.

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