on 5 May 2014
The book is old in the field it is considering. The last twenty years have completely transformed our vision of what happened in the world after the end of the Ice Age, or even after the small icy episode between 10,800 and 9,600 BC. The concept of Neolithic revolution invented in the 1920s by the extreme Marxist V. Gordon Childe is today completely outdated and considered more and more as a perversion of history. Even the concept of prehistory based on the only consideration of the existence of writing systems is falling apart because that concept would mean Africa started having a history when in the 19th century, if not 20th century European colonists started writing African languages that were absolutely and only oral in spite of thirteen centuries of Arab and Moslem influence.
BLACK AFRICA'S HISTORY
This book was salvational in many ways at the time of its publication. It asserted the historical participation of Black Africa as far back as the birth of the Egyptian civilization. It insists on the leading role it played in some periods and it tries to find out in what periods there existed contact between Black Africa and the Americas. We cannot of course reproach the author with what he could not know in 1976. He could not know Gobekli Tepe, the surrounding settlements, the Natufian villages, etc., all going back to 12,000 years BC which is more than 6,000 or 7,000 years before the Egyptian civilization and 9,000 before the invention of the first known writing system in the Middle East, the Sumerian writing system too often identified as the Akkadian cuneiform writing system because the scribes were Akkadian speaking a Semitic language though the language was Sumerian, a synthetic-analytical language, probably post-agglutinative. Something like 100,000 years part in linguistic phylogeny.
The book is thus essential. The author insists on and explores the role Semitic Egyptians, Semitic Phoenicians, Black Nubians (he does not specify their languages), Black West Sudanese (he does speak of their languages and quotes essentially Bambara, Malinke and Peul). Most of the languages spoken by these Black populations were of the synthetic-analytical type known as Bantu languages, though Peul is slightly different. In that perspective he insists on the Mali or Mandigo Empire founded in 1234 by Sundiata. He does not specify it was after the defeat of the Sosso animists who used to be enslaved in the previous Moslem society and had rebelled and conquered power over these Moslems. The creation of the Mali Empire is the final success of Islam in this region which will bring the famous Kurukan Fuga Charter in 1240 or just after, legalizing the existence of slavery (that could not concern Moslems) that was re-imposed onto the animists. This Charter was only rediscovered in 2004. But the author ignores completely the problem of slavery in Africa and particularly the slave trade from Black Africa to the Arab and Moslem world in those centuries. In other words Black Africa provided slaves in exchange for Arab goods, like tobacco if the author is right.
The book reopens the history of Black Africa but it does not consider some essential elements like slavery, slave trade and slave markets, not to speak of Islam and the direct consequences it had on Black Africa.
BLACK AFRICA AND AMERICA BEFORE COLUMBUS
Van Sertima explores and gives all the evidence he can find about three contact periods.
The first one is between 800 and 700 BC, during the 25th dynasty of the Egyptian Pharaonic civilization. At that time the Blacks from Nubia had managed to reunify the two Upper and Lower Egypts and to get the Assyrians away for a time. They needed metals to develop their war power in front of the Assyrians. The Semitic Phoenicians mastered the metallurgy technology like the Assyrians (all of these speaking Indo-European languages at the time and conquering the Semitic peoples, like the Jews among others). But Egypt was metal-poor and they asked the Phoenicians to use their sailing abilities to look for metal beyond the Mediterranean, going west. The soldiers provided by the Black Pharaohs were Blacks from Nubia.
Van Sertima asserts that the sudden development of the Olmec civilization in Mesoamerica was due to this contact established in Mexico. It would have been these Egyptians, Nubians and Phoenicians who would have brought to America the technology to build step pyramids, and many other things including some seeds. These merchants would have been behind the development of the cult of Quetzalcoatl, at least the black version of it, though the author does not explain why there was a mongoloid version up in Peru. He states that the Olmecs were developed at the time but he does not specify in what fields and how, except an allusion to agricultural development but with no precision whatsoever. The Olmecs were only on the receiving side. And the myth of the departure of Quetzalcoatl is typical: it is when these merchants finally left. Without saying so, the author implies that the Maya writing system using what he calls hieroglyphs, and some are supposed to be similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs, is in fact inspired from the Egyptian writing system. The strange thing is that Phoenicians had managed to develop an alphabet from that of Semitic languages at the time by adding vowels to the Semitic consonants. We even could think that they may have been able to use the old Sumerian writing system that was invented for commerce and that was still used at the time. Why the old Egyptian writing system, and not the more advanced ones present on the Rosetta stone for example, we do not know, I mean the author does not consider the question. As for seeing some similitude between the old Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Maya very pictorial representations, it seems to me slightly farfetched. The fact that the sun is represented by a circle in both systems is in no way a proof because the sun is round as everyone knows, even for small children who draw the sun. It is not even a "human" universal. It is a plain fact and if we used Can Sertima's kind of reasoning the letter "O" would be a representation of the sun.
The most important thing is of course the discovery of the gigantic Negroid heads in Olmec country from La Venta onward. One at least of these Negroid heads is designed to be an altar, including with a special "speaking device" to make it some kind of prophesying divine voice or mouthpiece. He gives an interesting set of figures. In Tlatilco in a pre-classic Olmec cemetery he says 13.5% of skeletons were pure Negroid whereas in the later classic period only 4.5% of them were still pure Negroid. The conclusion is correct: the Blacks who arrived then were males and they at once intermarried with local women. That means that in a few generation's time the black minority became genetically integrated. DNA would be necessary to determine the proportion of Black genes in the total population, probably outreaching to everyone.
He more or less endorses that these Black Egyptians and their Phoenician sailors would have brought to America the ferment of their development with: massive organization of labor (I would prefer speaking of division of labor and it would be necessary to clearly say the Olmecs were agriculturalists though the book does not say at what level: more about it later); a trade network; ceremonial centers and pyramids; colossal sculptures; relief carving; wall painting; orientation of structures (towards sun, moon and stars); gods and religious symbolism; obsession with Underworld; representation of foreign racial types; hieroglyphic writing and scribes; seals and rings; use of iron; and even some more, particularly mummification of the dead and burial procedures with food, slaves, animals, wives, etc.
The great problem here is of course the non-exploration of the level of civilization reached by the Olmecs before this contact, and the mistake that was absolutely common in 1976: the belief in the Neolithic agricultural revolution entirely proved false as I have said before and will discuss in more detail later
WESTERN AFRICAN CONTACT PERIODS
The other contact periods are twenty centuries later and come from the Mali Empire.
1310-1311 and the Mandigo Journey, when Abubakari II (1307-1311), the emperor of Mali, abdicates from his throne to go on a journey from which he will never come back. The journey was a sea voyage to the west starting of course from the west coast of Africa.
Then 1462-1492 and the Songhay traders from the same African west coast.
In spite of the Olmec development asserted before these contacts with Muslim Mali would have been necessary to provide America with the cotton seeds needed to produce the American hybrids that appeared then. It would have brought bananas, a seedless fruit that can only be reproduced by transplanting the root stocks after division, hence these traders would have brought banana root stocks, preferably dried out after division and before transplantation. They would have brought what the author calls gourds which are of various types, including the bottle ones used as vessels for various liquids or activities, including music. It would have brought yams that can reproduce easily by cutting up one plant and planting the pieces. Finally it could have brought tobacco that is attributed to the Arabs, at least when considering its propagation in Black Africa.
We wonder then what the Americans had to live on before. Even the beans are considered only in the light of one particular type that was imported from Africa to the Americas.
The point is that the mention of some purely American plants is short and partial. He speaks of pumpkins (but not of many other squash), of maize (without explaining how it was genetically produced since it cannot reproduce itself naturally), and that's all. We were expecting some mention of tomatoes, chili peppers and other peppers in that line, potatoes in the form we know or as Ocas known as Indian potatoes and coming from Peru, etc. In other words the agricultural vision of America is so deficient that these Indians seem to be deeply primitive if not barbaric. They had an agriculture. They did not wait for anyone to bring it. They had had their Neolithic agricultural evolution with the plants that were at their disposal, and there were many.
THE LINGUISTIC SHORTCOMING
It is not enough to say that two words look alike to conclude they are connected. Popular etymology is famous about that and we should all know that a Tower of London's Beefeater is a man who eats beef and that's why he is dressed mostly in red. Unluckily the real origin is the French word "buffetier" that simply means "butler" and here he was the man who was receiving food and drinks for the King.
He easily compares Arabic words and Bambara (or other West African languages) words and then Maya (and other Mesoamerican or northern American languages) words. He does not specify that Arabic is a Semitic language based on consonantal roots meaning that words are purely discursive and cannot in anyway be cut up in syllables, as the author does. On the other hand Bambara or Malinke are Bantu languages based on word semantic classes that can go through declensions or conjugations and yet do not seem to have developed syntactic cases or at least a full set of them. Yet these languages work a lot on concatenation that sets the specifier after the main "noun" if it is a noun. The examples he gives about Maya show that it is probably a synthetic analytical language too but having reached a more complex syntax since they build compounds with the specifier in front of the specified main "noun."
In Malinke the "werewolf" (the man who is an animal predator) is a nama-koro in which "nama" is a wiseman, and "koro" is a "hyena" and thus this "werewolf" a "hyena wise man". We note we have a simple concatenation in which the two elements could be connected by a BE copula, if it existed in the 15th century, or by any spatial preposition that would express the connection from the main term first to the specifier second. Let me give an example in modern Lingala:
"mondele makasi" is the concatenation of "mondele that means "a European" and "makasi" that means "power" or "force." We could have a BE copula but it is not the most common way, or we could have a spatial preposition and say "mondele na makasi" and this construction is common. But the simple concatenation is the most common way. Translating would be misleading since it would produce: "Europeans are strong" or "Europeans have power." The second is all the more pregnant because the use of the preposition "na" before the predicative element of the copula BE produces a relation equivalent to the copula HAVE. What is important here is the direction N1 N2.
Now if we consider the Nahuatl word for "werewolf" we get "coyotli-naual" composed of "coyotli" for "coyote" and "naual" meaning "wise man" from the root "na-" meaning "knowledge" or anything connected to knowledge and intelligence, including magic. By the way the author declares this root absent in Nahuatl in spite of its presence in the name of the language, (the language of) those who know, those who have the knowledge. This is a small but revealing contradiction in the book. Pocahontas is from a tribe whose name means exactly the same thing: "Powhatan" and the similitude of "pow" with the English "power" does not imply at all any connection even though the meaning is the same. We can observe in "coyotli-naual" that the order of the elements produces a compound: N2 N1, the specified main term second and preceded by the specifier. This is the standard composition order in Germanic languages for examples. Languages that build their compounds in the other direction like French will generally use a prepositional element to connect the two items: "moulin-à-café" (coffee grinder), "livre-de-classe" (school book) etc.
It is common when two languages are in contact that one borrows words from the other (we are not talking of the English case in which two languages were so much in contact that they creolized one another (Anglo-Saxon and Norman French) to produce a third one. But when two languages of different level of syntactic and morphological organizations borrow words there are special rules that would imply the passage from one language to the other. In oral languages for example the borrowed word would change completely its pronunciation and eventually its spelling and writing if the borrowing language is written. Otherwise the syntax and morphology of the borrowing language is imposed onto the borrowed element. It is the case here, if "coyotli-naual" is originally borrowed: shift from pure concatenation to composition.
DIRECT TRANSFER FROM EGTPTIAN CULTURE
But in fact this neglect of the linguistic logic of such phenomena comes from a systematic translative procedure from Egypt, the Arab world or Western Africa to America. Quetzacoatl, who would deserve a lot more than this side remark is a typical case. The author reduces the association of the snake and the bird to Egyptian symbols and to a mythological fight between an eagle, or a hawk, and a snake, the snake being Seth and the Falcon being Horus. But, first that's late in Egyptian mythology, and second I could not find anywhere a Seth identified as a snake. The Encyclopædia Britannica says: "Seth was represented as a composite figure, with a canine body, slanting eyes, square-tipped ears, tufted (in later representations, forked) tail, and a long, curved, pointed snout; various animals (including aardvark, antelope, ass, camel, fennec, greyhound, jackal, jerboa, long-snouted mouse, okapi, oryx, and pig) have been suggested as the basis for his form." The fight between an eagle and a snake localized on the east coast of Mexico probably has no Egyptian root. I found one drastic serpent in Evolution of the Dragon, by G. Elliot Smith, , http://www.sacred-texts.com/lcr/eod/eod46.htm.
THE SERPENT AND THE LIONESS.
When the development of the story of the Destruction of Mankind necessitated the finding of a human sacrifice and drove the Great Mother to homicide, this side of her character was symbolized by identifying her with a man-slaying lion and the venomous uræus-serpent.
She had previously been represented by such beneficent food-providing and life-sustaining creatures as the cow, the sow, and the gazelle (antelope or deer): but when she developed into a malevolent creature and became the destroyer of mankind it was appropriate that she should assume the form of such man-destroyers as the lion and the cobra.
[...] The identification of the destroying-goddess with the moon, "the Eye of the Sun-god," prepared the way for the rationalization of her character as a uræus-serpent spitting venom and the sun's Eye spitting fire at the Sun-god's enemies. Such was the goddess of Buto in Lower Egypt, whose uræus-symbol was worn on the king's forehead, and was misinterpreted by the Greeks as not merely a symbolic "eye," but an actual median eye upon the king's or the god's forehead.
[...] But the uræus was not merely the goddess who destroyed the king's enemies and the emblem of his kingship: in course of time the Cobra became identified with the ruler himself and the dead king, who was the god Osiris. When this happened the snake acquired the god's reputation of being the controller of water.
But Seth cannot be seen as that serpent since Seth is the treacherous brother of Osiris.
In the same way the calendar with twelve months is not at all the original calendar of the Middle East. The original one was lunar and had thirteen months, just the same way as the Zodiac was divided into thirteen signs and not twelve. The one that should be added is Ophiuchus, the Serpent Holder that was still present in Europe, for example, in the thirteenth century and beyond: it was present with the other twelve on the outside walls of the Abbey Church of Issoire in France built in the 12th century, for one example. Native Americans, particularly Mesoamericans and South Americans, Mayas, Aztecs, Olmecs, Incas, etc, who worshipped the sun naturally had a solar calendar with twelve months. The shift from the lunar calendar to the solar calendar in the Middle East and Egypt is relatively recent. The author does not seem to know this fact. It is also a shift from the dominant female element in the divine world to the dominant male world. This is codified in old Mesopotamian mythology on the Sumerian tablets or in the oldest Vedas: the victory of Ninurta over the treacherous Anzu and the victory of Indra over Vrtra, of the male god over the female ancient mother-goddess take some demented size. But all that has little to do with Quetzalcoatl that comes from a completely different tradition. Quetzalcoatl cannot be compared to the dragon of this Sumerian and vedic traditions, nor with the defeat of the great mother.
Van Sertima has the tendency to simply compare the surface of things and to draw final conclusion from some resemblance that can easily be questioned anyway. He started with words and he moved to representations of gods. We cannot see man working in his fight to survive and develop. The world is totally meachanical and we cannot know how this or that human phenomenon has been developed by man himself.
HOMO SAPIENS AND THE MIND
This linguistic shortcoming is so common that we could consider the author just followed the main trend in his days. Even still in 2011, the author Charles C. Mann writes in National Geographic a basic article on Gobekli Tepe and he falls in the trap. Many anthropologists and archaeologists fall in that trap because they have no linguistic training and they do not understand how the human mind works. In spite of all, and in spite of Sally McBrearty Charles C. Mann questions the Neolithic Revolution and yet speaks as if it did exist and as if there was before and after and as if that was a short fast systematic radical change that occurred only in the Levant and the Fertile Crescent to spread afterwards to the rest of the world. This is so absurd that we wonder who was in 2011 the editor in chief of National Geographic to let such a ridiculous idea go through, especially with Gobekli Tepe and what Klaus Schmidt, the archaeologist responsible for this site, says: " I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind." And Mann reduces that to religion of course, to the assertion that Gobekli Tepe is the oldest construction of the type, is the first human construction of the type, is the unique human construction of the type and of that age, hence is the center of the Neolithic transformation in the whole world.
There is no mind without a language. The mind is a construct based on the brain, the nervous system and the sensori-motor system and that mind cannot construct itself without language. Human articulated language is a collateral side-effect of the respiratory, articulatory and neural-neuronal mutations that enabled Homo Sapiens to be a fast long-distance bipedal runner (his only chance to survive).
The brain works in such a way that any item is identified as a pattern or set of patterns, then recognized as such and this process finds in the mind the tool it needs to name it. This implies a mental picture of the item and the first stage of a concept, of conceptualization.
Homo Sapiens could never have survived if he had not been able to develop that conceptualization. Consequently man is able to observe the world and build a conceptualized model of it in his mind. That leads to science. Consequently man is able to experiment and conceptualize the projects and the results of this experimentation. That leads to inventions, discoveries, development. Consequently man is able to speculate on what he sees. That leads to art, philosophy, religion. The three go together. It is vain to pretend observation, experimentation and speculation come in a certain logical or even hierarchical order. The three develop together in the mind.
There would have been no migrations within Africa and then out of Africa without this mind and these three levels of conceptualization. To migrate they had to know the sky, the stars, the moon, the sun, etc. To survive, and then migrate, they had to control fire, to invent hunting techniques and weapons, to invent fishing and to invent numerous tools.
When we come to agriculture after the Ice Age we do not understand that man had to go through a very long process of mental work to invent agriculture and that it probably started before the Ice Age, but it definitely became something basic after the Ice Age, that is to say when the ice was receding and melting, when water was liberated in the rivers and rising in the ocean, when the climate finally changed and that invention of agriculture happened in many places in the world: West Africa and the Niger river, Middle East and Levant and its two main Tigris and Euphrates rivers, India and the two main Ganges and Indus rivers, Yunnan and its three main Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers, Mexico and New Mexico and its many rivers, among others the Rio Grande, not to speak of the Mississippi or the Amazon River. And there might have been other places where big rivers existed. Each zone developed its own agriculture based on some cereals. What I am interested in here is Mexico and the basic plants they used in their agricultural transition. Some are simple like: pumpkins and other squashes, tomatoes, beans, chili pepper, potatoes and ocas, grapefruit, avocadoes, etc. That Tobacco was in this batch or not does not matter.
But the only one I did not list here is the essential one because it is going to explain how this agriculture can develop mentally.
MAIZE AND THE INVENTION OF AGRICULTURE
Maize, from Arawak mahiz, is unique because it is the only cultivated cereal that cannot reproduce itself by itself. It needs corn shucking and then the grains have to be plucked by hand or with a machine but always by man. How did the Indians managed to produce this cereal that cannot reproduce naturally?
First you must observe and come to the identification of seeds and the power of these seeds: to produce a new plant. You must observe germination and you must invent cultivation. You have to learn how to till the land before sowing, then you sow, then you water, then you weed, then you take care of the plants, etc. Homo Sapiens does not know anything about that. He has to observe and conceptualize these things and he has to experiment to find out that the cultivated result is better than the wild result, both product and output. And yet he has to observe pollination and understand the important value of it. Then by accident he may have planted the seeds of different types of the same plant together and by accident produced the pollination of one by the other and many of these hybridizations may have produced the maize we know. What we don't understand is that each step of this line of conduct takes generations and generations of human intelligence. It takes a lot of time, not one or two centuries but millennia.
The Mesoamerican Indians who produced this man-made cereal must have spent millennia to develop it little by little, year after year or should I say century after century. I do not refer to mutations here but to a practical way to experiment and to produce these mutations by the simple - and only - way they had at their disposal, hybridization, though they new nothing of it. And they had to observe it, experiment on it and speculate about it to get to the plant we know today.
So Van Sertima has it both right in the intention and false in the implementation. He misses the point. He wants to over-prove the role of Black Africans but he forgets that over-proving proves nothing and that any human phenomenon is necessarily dialectical. There is no progress coming from something imposed onto you. You need to be ready to integrate and develop what is brought to you, hence you need to have reached a high level of development to be able to integrate anything productively. And at the same time you cannot integrate something new from outside if you do not provide this outsider with something that is new for him. In fact the process Van Sertima presents is more a colonizing process than a real human collaborative process.
There are thousands of other elements that should be discussed but then I would be beyond reason. My conclusions here are going to be simple.
Gobekli Tepe has completely transformed our vision of the emergence of Homo Sapiens and modern humanity.
We cannot understand that emergence without taking into account what the human mind is. Development was first of all mental and that mental dimension could not exist without language. Hence we have to consider everything in the light of mental processes and linguistic tools, limitations and potentials.
If we keep in mind the observe-experiment-speculate line or direction as being a threefold and yet unified stance and vision we may understand that there is no development possible without the three of them at the same time. Maybe not in every human but in every community.
We come here to the necessary division of labor that is indispensable for humanity to survive at first (children have to be taken care of for five years) and to develop afterwards. Gobekli Tepe shows that without a division of labor, some being craftsmen with special skills, some being visionary people who are designing and managing the building of the structure, some being the providers of these, providers of water and food, providers of raw material like stone, providers of manpower when necessary, the project would never have existed and lasted nearly two thousand years.
This project needed a special economy to be viable: agriculture is contained in the project as a necessity not under that name but under the simple need to produce more per worker in order to take care of those who did not produce food and had to be fed.
This implies a power structure and no one can say if it existed before or if it was invented during the construction. But please do not make Mann's mistake. This is the first structure of the type we have found. There is no reason to think it is the only one in the world. Do we know what happened in Asia with the people of the second migration that produced on the basis of a second articulation language all the isolating languages of Asia? We hardly know the original civilization of Tibet before the Buddhists who were kicked out of India invaded it and colonized it. The civilization at stake is the Bon civilization and religion. What do we know about it except that they were a human blood drinking civilization, like the Olmecs and a few others in America in those very distant times? The least we can say is that we know little about Tibet around 4,000 or 5,000 BC, not to speak of 10,000 BC, escept that it must have been entirely covered with ice. And what about Yunnan? And what about Mongolia?
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU