Undercover: Who Discovered America? (03/24/77)

Ancient Ameri­can history is a conundrum. The orthodox view, still maintained by many scholars, is that before Columbus, the only inhabitants of or visitors to the New World (save for the Vikings) were Amerindians: descendants of Asians who arrived in Alaska by way of a now-submerged land bridge across Bering Strait sometime between 40,000 B.C. and 10,000 B.C. As far as I know, no serious writer argues that the principal pre-Columbian population of the New World derived from any other source. The idea, however, that no one else set foot on American soil until the Vikings or Columbus does not remotely follow from the Bering Strait version of American prehistory; in fact, given that Columbus’s voyages took place long after the technology for transoceanic travel had been developed by various cultures, the idea makes no readily apparent sense. The only kind of apparent sense it makes is racist or ethnocentric: since (it would seem) no literate or publicity-seeking European made it to the Americas during the early period of Christian European hegemony, it has been impossible for some Europeans and their descendants, including white U.S. scholars, to believe that a less technologically sophisticated, pagan and even dark-skinned people could have done so.

This is a relatively recent orthodoxy. From the very first years of Columbus’s discoveries, once it was determined that the “Indians” were not in fact living in India, it has been proposed that Amerindians, or groups of Amerindians, were really descendants of Babylonians, Egyptians, Irish mariners, the ten lost tribes of Israel, refugees from the “lost continent” of Atlantis, and so on. Again, racism or ethnocentrism lay behind most of these claims, and in certain modern versions still do: European conquerors refused to believe that “savages” could have built the civilizations, temples, and monuments found in Mexico and Peru without “help.”whoThree books have recently appeared on pre-Columbian contacts between the Old and the New World, and each deserves close attention. They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America by Ivan Van Sertima (Random House, 288 pp., $15), focuses on South and Central America, and argues, by way of artistic, linguistic, chronological (Amerindian, African and European) and other evidence, that Africans maintained regular social intercourse with Amerindians, even to the point of transoceanic trade, and significantly affected the development of the first civilization to emerge in the Americas, that of the Olmecs, whose earliest traces date to at least 1200 B.C.

Unexpected Faces in Ancient America, 1500 B.C.-1500 A.D. by Alexander von Wuthenau (Crown, 240 pp., $12.95) presents an overwhelming amount of evidence, in the form of pre-Columbian sculpture, for the presence in the Americas not only of Africans but also of Orientals and, more dubiously, of Semites. America B.C.: Ancient Settlers in the New World by Barry Fell (New York Times/ Quadrangle, 312 pp., $12.50) concentrates on North America, principally New England, and traces the permanent American settlement (“kingdoms”) of Iberian Celts—beginning about 1000 B.C., with occasional contacts as early as 2500 B.C. Most remarkably, Fell combines written evidence—primarily translations of Celtic script found on American artifacts and rock structures—together with an investigation of New England stone cellars, once thought to be storage dumps built in Colonial times, and here convincingly established as the ruins of Celtic temples predating the arrival of Columbus by well over a thousand years. Each of these books is illustrated; Fell’s and Wuthenau’s profusely.

The effect of these studies is, first, to weaken the integrity of Amerindian culture (by a long route, we return to the idea that Amerindians may not have devised their civilizations on their own); second, to vitalize African and Celtic history; and third, to force a rethinking not only of American prehistory but of Western European history, given something close to proof that Mediterranean and European history can no longer be understood simply by reference to the standard Sumer-Egypt-Greece-Rome-Christian continuum, which leaves out the Celts altogether. All in all, the effect of these books is to convince one that the human story is far richer, far more complex and far more pluralistic than one has ever been taught to believe.

It must also be said that as works of scholarship these are very bad books. Again and again, one stumbles over abysmal organization of evidence (worst in Fell), fragmentary arguments (Fell’s “discovery” of a European “mother goddess” in New England is one of the more casual breakthroughs in archaeological history), a chatty (Fell and Wuthenau) or absurdly novelistic (Sertima) historical voice, woefully incomplete or nonexistent provenances offered for confusing or dubious pieces of evidence, and offhand dismissals of troubling evidence (of which there is much) that points back toward the New World’s isolation from the Old.

The first thing one learns when one begins to read prehistorical studies is that very little is known about early societies before that time when they begin to leave coherent written histories of their own (the griots of West Africa are an exception, but a narrow one). Of what is known, very little is understood. Sertima, Wuthenau, and Fell understand the most difficult mysteries all too easily. Because of this, their work may soon be discredited, at least to the satisfaction of orthodox anthropologists and archaeologists. Hopefully, before that happens, better scholars will follow where these pioneers have led; if they don’t, thousands of years of American history may well be lost for a second time.


Rolling Stone, March 24, 1977

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