Anthropologist-linguist Ivan Van Sertima has set ablaze a mini-controversy with his thesis that Africans set foot upon - and made significant cultural impact on - the New World 22 centuries before Columbus sailed into the West Indies.
In his book, "They Came Before Columbus," Van Sertima, a Rutgers professor, says that African influences can be found in an array of cultural similarities between Africa and the ancient Americas - pyramid construction, the use of boat litters, the parasol, the plumed serpent motif, bronze-casting techniques.
He also points to the Negroid features of giant stone heads in Mexico, our of which have been radio carbon dated at 814 B.C.
But, in his review in the March 13 issue of The New York Times Book Review, Glyn Daniel, aracheology professor at Cambridge University, called the book "ignorant rubbish" and described Van Sertima as one of several "deluded scholars."
Daniel's review provoked a barrage of letters - from scholars and laypersons - defending Van Sertima. The Book Review received about 70 letters, the most reader reaction it's had on an issue since the reviewer attacked Robert Frost several yeas ago.
The book is a special May selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and Tandom House is about to publish a second printing.
Van Sertima, 42, here Saturday for the concluding day of the third annual black writers conference sponsored by Howard University, said the pervious to original thought, who will letters exposed Daniel as "a man imnot even do honest battle with ideas he contends but tries to drown out in a sea of vituperation and abuse."
The professor said that he was intrigued but skeptical when he first encountered the idea of ancient African contact with the Americas.
"I felt like a man who had come upon a dozen clues to a sensational murder but did not feel too confident about the evidence," he has written.
The occasion was his first visit to the United States from Britain, where he was working in 1970. In the library of a Princeton professor, he came across three volumes, "Africa and the Discovery of America," written by a Harvard Linquist, Leo Weiner, and published more than 50 years ago. The books showed an African and Arabic influence on medeival Mexican and South languages prior to European contact.
Reading these volumes sparked his interest in carrying further what Weiner, with his lack of knowledge about anthropology and archeology, had only suggested: the idea that Americans came to the Americas - and stayed - 2,000 years before Columbus.
Laster that year he returned to this country to teach at Rutgers. He was asked to write a magazine piece simplifying and summarizing Weiner. On the day he submitted his piece, he learned about Alexander von Wuthenau, and art historian who had excavated a large number of Negroid heads in clay, gold, copper and copal sculpted by pre-Columbian American artists.
Van Sertima was convinced there was a connection between ancient Africa and the Americas. And he started work, using his own money.
"I nver expected any money," he explains. "I kept quiet about my work. I knew that the subjext was suspect."
Van Sertima said he didn't travel much to research the book. "The problem was not that the research hadn't been done," he says, "but that no one had examined the available documents and material and pulled from together."
He researched the book at the British Museum, and in libraries at Princeton, London University and Douglas College, and the corresponded with scholars all over the world.
Van Sertima's zeal for learning about African culture began in England in the '60s while he was working as a writer for the BBC. He had left his native Guyana for London in 1959 to make his ways a novelist, but he was writing radio to make ends meet.
After being told that he couldn't do a series on African writers because there was no African literature. Van Sertima quit and wrote the series for an independent company.
"While I was doing it," he recalls, "I asked myself why was I studying African writers in English.Why didn't I know an African language? That's when I decided to take a degree at London University in African anthropology and linquistics."
Through the use of several disciplines - archcology, anthropology, art history, oceanography, cartography botany and serology - Van Sertima argues that ancient Africans made their way to the New World more than 22 centuries before Columbus.
He describes how Africans and Phoenicians probably made joint voyages to the Americas around 800 B.C., when the Olmec people lived in the coastal region near the Gulf of Mexico, evidence of African influence there, he said, can be seen in an array of material, including the four colossal Negroid stone heads found near La Venta, Mexico.
Other stone heads have been uncovered in Mexico. And numerous Negroid portraits and masks were found with them.
The professor also catalogs cultural evidence in a Negroid skeleton found in the Virgin Islands dating back to 1250 A.D. and the finding of African cotton in the Americas.
Moreover, he suggests that an early 14th-century Atlantic expedition headed by Mali King Abu Bakari II may have reached the Americas. The launching of the expedition is recorded by Arab historian Ibn Fadl Allah al-Omari, according to Van Sertima.
How could Africans, who are not popularly known as seamen, have crossed the 1.500 Atlantic miles to the American continents?
Van Sertima answers that Africans were indeed sailors, that a division of Negro sea captains and mariners is reported to have been in the Egyptian navy of the 19th dynasty and the East Africans sailed between their countries and China in the 13th century.
Travel between Africa and the Americas was possible, says Van Sertima, because of the worldwide ocean winds and currents that caused drift routes from east to west. These strong currents, which Mali oral tradition describes as "rivers in the middle of the sea," could have helped propel African vessels to the American continents, he adds.
What meaning do these ideas have for 20th-century people?
Van Sertima said: "Many people feel a certain kind of happiness when they read my book. A certain kind of shadow lifts. The psyche of blacks is raised. No man who believes his history began with slavery can be a healthy man. If you lift that shadow, you help repair that damage.
"'Roots' does not do that. 'Roots' goes back to the time when the damage was beginning. We need to know about the time when we had empires. This is not a romantic idea.
"Columbus is not just a man, lic is a symbol. It was with the coming of Columbus that the twilight of the red and black races began. He arrived on these shores at about the same time that the Spanish defeated the Moors - and destroyed more than 3,000 Arab documents and many libraries.
"How many of us know the African influence on ancient Greece and Rome? There is also a vast body of knowledge to be uncovered about Africa and America. When you push one door, other doors begin to open."