Africa and the Pre-Columbian Contacts with America

By Bryan Wilhite

This vintage item is one of my college papers written in the heart of Reagan country at UCSB in the late 1980s. I can assure you that the “conservative” political climate at UCSB would not discourage my friendly college professor to stamp a failing grade on this paper with the charge of “Afro-centric fantasy” that the author of Not out of Africa would be wont to impose. However, my college records will show that this was far from the case.

The idea that pre-Columbian America was an assemblage of societies isolated from the rest of the world after the melting of the well-known ‘‘land bridge’’ crucial to the Asiatic migrations into the continent across the Bering Strait, is becoming less likely to many scholars. Theories of transpacific, transatlantic—and even transantartic contacts with early America have been advanced. A report from 1975 lists a Dr. Eckholm and a Dr. Dennis Lou as investigators of the possibility of early Chinese contacts with America.1 This same report maintains that, “[many] orthodox scientists are beginning to admit the possibility of Melanesian migrations to America...”2 Wolfgang Marschall produced a work published under the auspices of the University of Tübingen, Germany, concerning transpacific cultural relations entitled Transpazifische Kulturbeziehungen (Klaus Renner Verlag, 1972).

Buy this book at! As for early transatlantic contacts, the scholarly finger had been pointed toward the continent of Africa, as early as 1920.3 Whereupon a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Harvard University, Leo Wiener, presented a largely philogistic argument supporting an African presence in early America. However, other scholars, such as Alexander von Wuthenau, base their proof on artifacts which seem to depict other racial types found in America. But the use of language as an ‘artifact’ could serve as a “peripheral indicator”—to corrupt von Wuthenau’s words—to the idea that early American artists actually recorded the ethnic phenotypes of many peoples of the world. Other so-called Wuthenauean indicators of an African presence include the opinions, and testimony of Leo Frobenius (1873–1938) where the noted explorer mentions in passing that, “...there must have been very early contacts between Africa and America”; von Wuthenau’s own collected artifacts and photographs of mostly terra-cotta “Negroid representations” found in dated, early American strata were “confirmed” as ‘Negroid’ by inspection by many prominent Africans including the President of Senegal, Léopold Sedar Senghor.4 This evidence is wide open to skepticism but is partially supplemented by the findings of a Dr. de Garay, the director of the Genetic Program of the National Commission of Nuclear Energy in Mexico. Dr. de Garay identified the malaria resistant mutant gene, that produces sickle cells, in the blood of the Lacandones Indians, one of the oldest and most secluded tribes in Mexico. This tribe, of Mayan stock, who inhabit the forests of the upper waters of the Usumacinta river have not been known to mix with outsiders in post-Columbian times yet they possess a gene that is “usually found only in the blood of black people.”5

Olmec Head It would serve this discussion to mention that of the artifacts, alleged to be of a racial type, namely of the West African phenotype, the most dramatic examples proposed are the colossal Olmec stone sculptures found in La Venta, Tabasco near the Gulf of Mexico. The largest of these massive stone heads was found to be nine feet high and had some ceremonial purpose. All of the heads were dressed in attire foreign to natives of the period (dome shaped helmets and earplugs) and faced east, “staring into the Atlantic.”6 Most Amercanist scholars agree on 800 B.C. as the earliest date for the site at La Venta.7

Buy this book at! Research suggests that the strength in the African-American pre-Columbian connection lies in Leo Wiener’s philogist argument. The amount of words in ancient, indigenous American languages similar to those of African languages is startling. And of course similarity in language implies similarity in specific customs and mythology. Take, for example, certain Mandinka words with respect to those of the ancient Mexican:

Leo Wiener directs our attention to the work of B. de Sahagun, Histoire générale des chooses de la Nouvelle-Espagne (Paris 1880), in which Sahagun devotes an entire book of his work (Book IX) to Mexican merchants, jewellers, and featherers. 8

In Sahagun’s account of the Mexican merchants we are consistently reminded that they sold mantles (tilma, chimalli), waistcloths (maxtli)9, and chemises (vipilli). It can be shown that all these characteristically Mexican garments are of African origin. Unfortunately the scanty African vocabularies do not give us any account for these garments, and we have to draw our conclusions chiefly from the Arabic names, which fortunately give us all the data we need.10

Buy this book at! Seemingly in concert with Wiener, Ivan van Sertima points out that chimalli is translated as “shield, buckler” in the language of the Maya and that Valpalchimalli is translated as “battle cloak.” Van Sertima goes on to promise us that, in Mexican languages as well, there is a similar relationship between the words “buckler” and “cloak.” Van Sertima uses the language of the Maya to illustrate that chim and chimil also mean “pouch.” The point is that these oddly linked ideas of “pouch” and “cloak” are linked similarly in the Mande languages of West Africa.11 “They have an Arabic origin,” van Sertima writes,”and came into the Mande languages through the Arab caravan trade. An Arabic term is simla (plural, simal, pronounced “chimal”), meaning “a garment in which one wraps oneself” as well as “a bag or pouch put to the raceme of a palm tree in order that the fruit may not be shaken off, or held under the under of the ewe or goat, when the udder is heavy with milk.”12

As for the aforementioned maxtli, this word means “a waistcloth to hide the nudity” in the ancient American language of Nahuatl. This appears to correspond with the Malinke word masiti (“adornment”), also the Bambara masiri (“adornment to make one’s toilet”) is similar as well.1314

With regard to the word vipilli (“the nether garment of an Indian woman” or “protective garment used in war”), Wiener takes us through a myriad of West African languages to find its source, with the Arabic ever-present. It would be of no use to reproduce such a philogistic process here!15

The Mexican ritual presents the god of the amanteca clothed in “werewolf’s skin,” wearing a human mask on its head. This appears to be an exact duplicate of the Bambara ritual. Other trappings of the god are almost identical: the Mexican god wields a stick with knobbed black stones; the god of Mali wields a stick knobbed with fragments of sheep’s horns. The Mexican god bears a pot filled with numerous feathers on its back; the god of Mali ‘s ritual involves the feathered carcasses of two great birds.

In any case the very word for “trader” suggests transatlantic communications in that pochteca, having the roots p’olom in the Maya and poch in the Aztec,16 has been traced to the Soninke, folom (rich man, merchant) “another people in the medieval Mandingo world.”17

As has been said, similarities in language suggests similarities in cultures. Van Sertima points out a “confluence of cultures” with regard to medieval Mexico and West Africa. He compares the amanteca cult of the werewolf (the coyote of the prairies) and that of the Bambara of medieval Mali.18 In Bamabra the name of the werewolf cult was the nama, and the priests or head-men of the cult were called nama-tigi. Yet another similarity in language: both tigi and teca (of amanteca) mean “master”, “chief”, or “head-man.” According to van Sertima, “the morphemes tec/tequi, in fact, pronounced roughly the same as the Mandingo tig/tigi, carry the same and related meaning through nouns, adjectives and verbs in a number of Mexican languages and in Nahuatl.”

The Mexican ritual presents the god of the amanteca clothed in “werewolf’s skin,” wearing a human mask on its head. This appears to be an exact duplicate of the Bambara ritual. Other trappings of the god are almost identical: the Mexican god wields a stick with knobbed black stones; the god of Mali wields a stick knobbed with fragments of sheep’s horns. The Mexican god bears a pot filled with numerous feathers on its back; the god of Mali ‘s ritual involves the feathered carcasses of two great birds. The Bamabra ritual of Mali demands the use of rattles, rattles for the cult dancers and in a hollow gourd; the god of Mexico wears an anklet of small, white rattles—and in fact the gourd rattle is also used in Mexico. Van Sertima writes:

In fact, in both Mexico and Mali, the gourd rattle becomes a sort of ventriloquist’s dummy for the voice of god. This gourd rattle is the chief instrument of both the West African and American “fetish-man”...The rattle has the same name in America as in Mali. The Arabic mitraqah, passing through the Western Sudan in Bambara as mantaraka, appears in the American language Guarani as mbaraca, also in the American languages Arawak and Tupi as maraca. The association with the magical ritual is also the same.19

Buy this book at! If there were Mandinka traders in Medieval Mexico then what of their wares? Answering this question Ivan van Sertima advances that the Africans introduced tobacco, certain forms of cotton, yams, and bananas to America.20 Leo Wiener agrees with his colleague on everything but the bananas, siting the Portuguese as the bringer of this fruit.21 What is more interesting is the presence of lion skins in America, as lions have not been in America since pre-historic times.22 Despite this modern theory of pre-history Christopher Columbus, himself, reported the presence of lions in America, in a letter to the Spanish sovereigns—the so-called “Lettera Rarissima” (1505). For any doubt of Columbus’ knowledge of fauna, van Sertima assures us that Columbus had seen lions before during his trip to West Africa in 1483.23 Perhaps a more trustworthy man would be Bernal Diaz, who went with Cortes as the guest of Montezuma to see the marketplace of Tlateluco in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. In his detailed list of the merchandise present in the market, Diaz records the skins of lions.24 Since the lion is not an indigenous animal to America it has been suggested that the lions skins, “may have been the well-cured skins of animals Africans had hunted down in their original homelands and transported either in the Mandingo (1310–1311) or Songhay (c. 1462–1492) contact period. These skins could be preserved for generations.”25

The Spanish conquerors did more than just sight lion skins, suggesting the presence of pre-Columbian Africans in the New World, there are documented sightings of such peoples. Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the explorer who first settled Darien at the isthmus of Panama, eventually discovered the Pacific Ocean and soon after he came upon native settlements who held African captives of a group with which the natives were fighting.26 More African captives of war were found among native American tribes on an island off Cartegena, Columbia. According to the account of Fray Gregoria Garcia, a Dominican priest, this island was the place where the Spaniards first encountered Africans in the New World.27 Again we have a report of African captives from “trusted friend of Isabela la Católica and Fernando,” Pedro Martir, who was put in charge of educating the children of Ferdinand and Isabella.28 He was in contact firsthand with the New World explorers and reported all pertinent facts to the Pope and the Cardinals of Rome. Returning to the findings of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, of this he writes:

There they met Negro slaves from a region only two days in distance from Caruaca, where nothing else but Negroes are bred, who are ferocious and extraordinary cruel. They (the explorers) believe that in former times Negroes, who were out for robbery navigated from Ethiopia and, being shipwrecked, established themselves in those mountains. The inhabitants of Caruaca have internal fights full of hatred with these Negroes. They enslave each other mutually or just kill each other.29

In general, Professor Alphonse de Quatrefages of The Museum of Natural History states that, “black populations [outside of the post-Columbian slave complex] have been found in very small numbers and as isolated tribes in the midst of very different nations. Such are the Charruas of Brazil, the black Caribees of Saint Vincent in the Gulf of Mexico, the Jamassi of Florida...[etc.]”30

Since the lion is not an indigenous animal to America it has been suggested that the lions skins, “may have been the well-cured skins of animals Africans had hunted down in their original homelands and transported either in the Mandingo (1310–1311) or Songhay (c. 1462–1492) contact period. These skins could be preserved for generations.”

My opinion of this pre-Columbian contact does not include denial of West African pre-Columbian contact with America. The African can join the other peoples of the world as equal members of what appears to be a sophisticated, pre-colonial, cosmopolitan society. Von Wuthenau’s pre-Columbian artists can be seen as visual chroniclers of the period instead of simple, isolated natives living in a fantasy world—creating images of what only “appear” to be of racial types. I know of the belief that “ is extremely misleading to use the testimony of artistic representations to prove ethnic theories.”31 Yet I also know it is possible—as von Wuthenau puts it—to put pre-Columbian artists on the “witness stand” as “...they are indeed good and reliable witnesses. They lived at chronological definable times. They had an exceptionally keen sense of observation, a wonderful gift for abstraction and condensation, and above all, an unimpeachable sincerity that nobody can doubt.”32 But they really serve as supplements in my view to the evidence presented by the Ivan van Sertima and Leo Wiener.

I find it entirely believable that Africans could have crossed the ocean since I do not subscribe to such ignorance knowing not of the shipbuilding skills of medieval West Africa and of the Egyptians and Phoenicians before them. Nor do I believe that the Spanish galleon was the world state of the art in shipbuilding and that it could not be surpassed by earlier models of other, older cultures including those of Africa.

But, Africa aside, I must stress the point that ancient America was not a set of isolated societies in my opinion. The early Americans were able, for the most part, to adapt to other cultures from far across the world and to fuse them into their own without any indication of racial exploitation or social Darwinistic genocide( I do admit there has been a bit of war). This indicates to me a sophistication far beyond any culture Europe could provide.33


Van Sertima, Ivan. They Came Before Columbus. New York: Random House, 1976.

Von Wuthenau, Alexander. Unexpected Faces in Ancient America (1500 B.C.—A.D.1500): The Historical Testimony of Pre-Columbian Artists. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975.

Wiener, Leo. Africa and the Discovery of America. Philadelphia: Innes & Sons, 1920.

End Notes

1 “...I confessed to my startled student friend that I was preparing , at the request of Professor D. Dennis Lou of the State University of New York, a collection of photographs of pre-Columbian terrcottas showing Chinese features and Chinese pigtails...” Alexander von Wuthenau, Unexpected Faces in Ancient : 1500B.C.–A.D.1500, The Historical Testimony of Pre-Columbian Artists (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975), p. 19, 70.

2 Ibid.

3 Leo Wiener, Africa and the Discovery of (Philadelphia: Innes & Sons, 1920)

4 “Another invitation to reconsider the possibilities of transatlantic contacts is the previously mentioned research carried out by Professor Charles H. Hapgood; in his book, Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings we are suddenly confronted with the fact that as early as 1513 the Turkish admiral Piri Reis knew more about the east coast of South America and the noth coast of the Antartic than anyone elese at the time.”Von Wutheneau, p. 26, 28.

5 Ivan van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus (New York: Random House, 1976), pp. 94–96.

6 van Sertima, p. 145.

7 Ibid.

8 Wiener, vol. III; pp. 229–231.

9 “The early writers on , and Cortes included, have used the Arabico-Spanish word almaizares with which to designate this piece of adornment, frequently the only one observed on women. But this Arabic word got to through the Mandingos before .” Wiener, vol. III; p. 232.

10 Ibid.

11 van Sertima, pp. 99–100.

12 van Sertima, p. 100.

13 Ibid.

14 The Mande languages include “Mandingo, Kabunga, Toronka, Kankanka, Babara, Mande and Vei.” Van Sertima, p. 11.

15 Wiener, vol. III; pp. 233–234.

16 Wiener, vol. III; p. 230.

17 van Sertima, p. 100.

18 The amanteca is the name of a caste of traders or featherworkers that was primarily located in medieval Tlateluco, “the market island across the lake from Mexico-Tenochitlan.” Van Sertima, p. 94.

19 van Sertima, p. 94.

20 van Sertima, chapters 10, 11.

21 van Sertima, p. 197.

22 van Sertima, p. 102.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 van Sertima, p. 22.

27 Ibid.

28 von Wuthenau, p. 170.

29 Ibid.

30 van Sertima, p. 23.

31 von Wuthenau, p. 70.

32 von Wuthenau, p. 57.

33 One interesting anti-diffusionist (anti-pre-Columbian contact) theory argues that if foreigners from the Old World were in , Why did they not tell the Americans about the wheel? See von Wuthenau, p. 14.