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Open letter to science editors


Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics
Drew University, Madison, N. J.

AMERICA B.C.: Ancient Settlers in the New World, by Barry Fell, A Demeter Press Book, Quandrangle/The New York Times Book Company, New York, 1976, $12.S0. THEY CAME

BEFORE COLUMBUS (dust jacket subtitle: The African Presence in Ancient America), by Ivan Van Sertima, Random House, New York, 1976, $15.00.

UNEXPECTED FACES IN ANCIENT AMERICA, 1500 B.C. -A.D. 1500: The Historical Testimony of Pre-Columbian Artists, by Alexander Von Wuthenau (Foreword by Cyrus H. Gordon), Crown Publishers, New York, 1975, $12.95.

After decades of disfavour, diffusionism is experiencing an undeniable resurgence at least in terms of recent publications asserting an Old World presence in pre-Viking America. All three of the above books are well written, well illustrated, and fascinating. Collectively, they present so much evidence of early African, Asian, and European visits to the Western Hemisphere that only hard-line archeological sceptics like England's Glyn Daniel continue to label all of it "rubbish."(l) And even he is being challenged in his own bailiwick by the appearance of a British journal called The New Diffusionist.(2)

The diffusionist renascence seems to me to constitute a healthy and necessary swing of the scholarly pendulum. Too many archaic American inscriptions have, since the late 19th century, been dismissed as flukes or forgeries; and too many sculptured heads of Caucasoid or Negroid aspect have been called "baby-faces" or "deliberate grotesques."

Of the three volumes here chosen for review, Von Wuthenau's is the simplest and most straightforward, Fell's the most complex and difficult. They will therefore be treated in the order: Von Wuthenau, Van Sertima, Fell.

If the Chinese were right to maintain that one picture is worth a thousand words, then Von Wuthenau's richly pictorial book comprises a one-volume encyclopedia of prehistory. Following Gordon's prefatory overview of his humanistic schooling and diplomatic experience, the author proceeds to endorse Giambattista Vico's claim that artistic monuments tell more than verbal texts do and to conclude his book with the hope that diffusionist studies may escape the harsh fate of Velikovskyan studies. The pages between consist largely of illustrative plates, many of them in polychrome. Of these, I find the portrait-heads of African Negroes most striking and convincing, those of Mediterranean Whites next, and those of East Asians least so an order that reflects not only representational verisimilitude but also the relative numbers of such artifacts unearthed. Even the East Asian portraits, however, are hard to attribute to accidental distortion.

On the other hand, when Von Wuthenau attempts, on the basis of pre-Columbian sculpture alone, to identify ethnic proveniences more specific than those of the major racial groupings, he seems to me to exceed his evidence. Thus, the head presented on pp. 86 and 90, which he says "one can only describe as . . . Irish," could, I think, represent almost any European nationality. And the head presented on pp. 86 and 87, which he characterises as "quite Semitic looking," looks more to me like that of a chimpanzee !

Typographical errors are so rare in Unexpected Faces that it is somewhat startling to find the names of the three authors James Bailey, Alfred De Grazia, and George Kubler consistently misspelled in it as 'Bealy,' 'Grazia,' and 'Kuebler,' respectively.

Van Sertima's book presents, among other interesting data, challenging evidence that there were substantial Black African minorities not only in ancient Egypt, where Negroes comprised up to 20% of the population, but also in pre-Columbian Meso-America, where they comprised up to 13%. The one serious error I encountered was Van Sertima's assertion (on pp. 59 and 251) that the Berbers generally and the Libyans particularly are Asians not only that but, even more oddly, that they are "a mixed race of Arabs who . . . originally came from Northern Asia, India and the Caucasus" ! Here one scarcely knows where to begin: the Arabs are a linguistic, not a racial group; there is no evidence that the Arabs ever centred demographically outside of the Near East; and the Berbers like their linguistic cousins the Egyptians and the Cushites are believed always to have lived in northern Africa.(3)

The most interesting question raised by Van Sertima, I think, is that of the status of the Blacks in early America, especially (though not exclusively) in Olmec Mexico. Did they come primarily as masters of White crews, as independent voyagers, as mercenary workers and soldiers, or as slaves of White masters? The first of these answers seems to be the one favoured by R. A. Jairazbhoy,(4) the second by Van Sertima himself, the third by James Bailey,(5) and the fourth by Constance Irwin.(6) My inclination is to believe that each of them may be right with regard to a specific period. I would expect Blacks to have been masters during the 25th, or "Ethiopian" (actually Nubian), Dynasty of Pharaonic Egypt, about 730-670 B.C.; independents during the pre-Islamic period of West Sudanic empire building, about 400-1000 A.D.; mercenaries during the apogee of Carthaginian commercial power, about 650-250 B.C.; and slaves during the period of maximal Arab hegemony in northern Africa, about 1000-1400 A.D. But even this periodisation is doubtless oversimplified, since geographical as well as historical variation needs to be considered.

America B.C. is not only the most involved but the longest of the three books reviewed here. What makes it involved is the large number of languages and scripts treated, and its length follows from this involvement. Before dealing with the complex relations between speech and writing, however, let me note those of Fell's contentions which I find at once most original and most provocative. First among them is his insistence on the pivotal importance of the Iberian peninsula as a maritime launching-point for emigrations not only to America but to Ireland as well. Next is his convincing claim that the Ogamic script which preceded the Latin alphabet in the British Isles originated as a graphic derivative of finger-spelling. Third is his survey of the hundreds of stone chambers and phallic pillars which he and his co-workers of The Epigraphic Society have discovered or revisited in New England and his postulation of links between them and the better known megalithic structures of Western Europe. And fourth is his suggestion that much of the seemingly abstract element in Amerindian graphic decor, especially from the Pueblo area in and around Arizona, may be a stylised version of Old World scripts.

Unfortunately, Fell seriously weakens his essentially strong thesis by presenting, in a dogmatic and unqualified manner, illustrative material that is dubious at best and erroneous at worst. Predictably, most of his errors fall in the domain of linguistics, of which (like all too many epigraphers) he is lamentably ignorant. Among these errors, the most flagrant are the following: that the proper names Galba and Ar(a)no- are Basque, when in fact they are transparently Indo-European, the former being cognate with German gelb, "yellow," and the second with Greek ornis, "bird" (p. 50); that the North American languages Pima and Zuni are Semitic and Egyptian, respectively, when in fact the former is Uto-Aztecan and the latter Penutian (even if both contain Old World loan-words: p. 171); that the word magus, "magician," is of Semitic origin, when in fact it is Indo-European and cognate with the English words mighty and machine (p. 173); that there was an "Egyptian group" of languages in the ancient Mediterranean area, when in fact Egyptian, alone among the Hamito-Semitic languages, never underwent internal differentiation of more than dialectal extent (p. 189); that the relatively ubiquitous glottal stop, as in early Hebrew 'aleph, "the ox letter," is a click, when in fact only suctive obstruents of the type found among the Khoisan languages of southern Africa may be termed clicks (p. 190); and that Gaulish was "the ancestral tongue of the Celts," when in fact Gaulish was not directly ancestral to any living Celtic language (p. 248).

In a few cases Fell does not even have the excuse of having to wrestle with linguistic technicalities. On p. 190, for example, he equates ancient Numidia with modem Tunisia, when in fact it lay in what is now called Algeria (modern Tunisia, of course, having then been Carthage). Worse yet, on the front outside dust jacket, as on p. 293 of the text, he represents "Iberic" as having been located in North Africa, when, even if he meant to refer to the Iberian dialect or subculture of the Carthaginians, it had to be located in Iberia (now called Spain).

In other cases, forms which Fell cites are grossly anachronistic if placed in the historical context that he specifies but acceptable if transferred to another millennium. Two examples of such anachronisms are the Ogamic forms G-W-N and M-H, which he vocalises as gwynn and mathair, translates as "white" and "mother," respectively, and attributes to Celtic rock inscriptions of North America from the period 800-300 B .C. Even assuming that his deciphemments and translations are correct, his chronology cannot be, because, prior to the 4th century A.D., the early Celtic forms for these words were vindo and mat(e)r-, which would have appeared in vowelless Ogamic script as V-N-D and M-T-R, respectively. What historical phonology strongly indicates is that these two forms, if genuine, probably date from some time between the 4th and 16th centuries A.D.

In the Postscript to his book, Fell writes that he is "probably in touch with the basic truths of the situation, though still fumbling with the details [and] surely making many errors that only time will reveal and correct." I think that this is a fair self-assessment. Yet I cannot help wishing that he had covered only half as much material with twice as much care as in fact he did. For anti-diffusionists are all too happy to pounce on conspicuous defects in a diffusionist argument as evidence that diffusionist theory is not only invalid but absurd.

If Fell, Van Sertima, and Von Wuthenau are right and Old World mariners from the time of the Minoans to that of the Vikings did indeed visit America, a major question remains to be answered: Why is the record of their traffic not more abundant? Though the three above-named authors do little to fill this explanatory lacuna, other scholars have made plausible suggestions. Cyrus Gordon, for example, points to the extreme secretiveness of the Phoenicians about their sea-lanes and trading contacts and implies that their attitude may have remained the norm til it was overcome by the self-glorifying inclination of Renaissance personalities like Columbus.(7) James Bailey, on the other hand, is more impressed by the destructiveness of plundering land-lubbers ranging from the Assyrians to the Turks, who not only oppressed sea-faring peoples but also burned their archives.(8)

Velikovskyan cataclysms can readily be invoked to explain the obliteration of most evidence of interhemispheric travel prior to the 7th century B.C.(9) But they will not cover the period between that century and the 10th century A.D., which offers just as much tantalisingly ambiguous evidence of contact as does the pre-Achaemenid era. Here it may be that more localised catastrophes can provide at least partial explanations of data gaps. Ivan Sanderson, for example, presents striking evidence for the decimation of southern New Jersey by a 1000-foot tsunami, or tidal wave, during the 10th century - an event which he believes to have created the "pine barrens."(10)

As long as we are speculating, however, it seems invidious to confine ourselves exclusively to dislocated maritime shipping routes. Both the Nazca desert markings in Peru and the serpentine mounds in the Ohio River Valley look as though they had been designed for aerial viewing. Even if we decline to postulate the ancient astronautics proposed by Erich Von Däniken,(11) it may be that we should consider the possibility of an ancient aerial technology of purely terrestrial origin, of the sort suggested by Andrew Tomas.(12)

Finally, an ideological question remains. If diffusionist logic is followed consistently, it obliges us to conclude that the American aborigines had not only urbanism but horticulture introduced to them by more sophisticated peoples from the Eastern Hemisphere and that, without such external stimulus, they would never have developed a way of life more advanced than that of nomadic hunting and food-gathering. Van Sertima has quite properly protested the application of a comparable logic to the cultural evolution of sub-Saharan Africa.(13) Are Red men now to be intellectually denigrated in the way in which Black men used to be? Here we confront ethical and social as well as historical and scientific problems.

* * * *


1. Review of Fell and Van Sertima, New York Times, Sunday Book Review, March 13, 1977, pp. 8, 12, and 14.
2. The New Diffusionist Press, Great Gransden, England.
3. I. M. Diakonoff, Semito-Hamitic Lanuages, Nauka, Moscow, 1965.
4. The Old World Origins of American Civilization, Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, N. J., 1974.
5. The God-Kings and The Titans: The New World Ascendancy in Ancient Times, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1973.
6. Fair Gods and Stone Faces, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1963.
7. Before Columbus, Crown Press, New York, 1971.
8. Bailey, op. cit.
9. Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, Doubleday & Co., Garden City, N. Y., 1950.
10. Investigating the Unexplained, Prentice-Hall Publishing Co., Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1972: Chapter 7, "Pickled Trees and Astroblemes".
11. Chariots of the Gods? Putnam's, New York, 1970.
12. We Are Not the First: Riddles of Ancient Science, Putnam's, New York, 1971.
13. Van Sertima, op. cit., esp. pp. 153-154.

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