But Van Sertima, 41, a Rutgers University assistant professor, claims that a number of black African expeditions—including one led by Abu Bakari II, a king of the Mali Empire in the 1300s—visited the North American continent long before Columbus.
Van Sertima, whose specialty is African studies, is not the first to suggest that Columbus was a Christopher-come-lately. Other researchers have argued, with varying credibility, that the Chinese, the Irish, the Poles and the Phoenicians, among others, reached these shores first.
"I am not trying to prove that Africans created American culture," Van Sertima says. "I am trying to prove that contact was made between the two cultures and that significant contributions were made by the Africans."
Van Sertima, who was born in Guyana in South America, has black African and American Indian ancestors, along with German, Dutch and Scottish. At 24, he went to the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies to study Swahili and anthropology.
After moving to Rutgers in 1970 to teach Swahili literature, he ran across research on the similarities in the vocabularies of some American Indian languages and several from West Africa. Then Van Sertima learned of Negroid heads sculpted in Mexico 2,000 years before Columbus. From there he began searching for—and discovering—additional evidence in other disciplines linking the two continents.
Van Sertima's theory will meet its severest test in January when his book They Came Before Columbus is published. He will face the scrutiny of fellow scholars, not to mention the wrath of Italian-American guardians of Columbus' reputation.
"Columbus is still a remarkable man," Van Sertima says. "He had great persistence to go from court to court to find support for his ideas. But he wasn't the first. He was the last."
It's not that Ivan Van Sertima wants to discredit Columbus, or even change the name of Ohio's capital to Abu Bakari II.