Revisiting the Question of Pre-Columbian Contact between Mayan and Egyptian Cultures

Charles Weller's picture

Dear Colleagues,

New Year greetings. I will be teaching 'Medicine, Science and Technology in World History' this semester. Debates over crosscultural contact and exchange versus independent development are central to the undertaking. Among other historical cases, I plan to raise the question of possible pre-Columbian contact between the Mayan and Egyptian cultures. Along these lines, I've come across the following sources in my brief, limited searches thus far:

Samuel D. Marble, Before Columbus: The New History of Celtic, Phoenician, Viking, Black African, and Asian Contacts and Impacts in the Americas before 1492 (South Brunswick, NJ: A.S. Barnes, 1980). (Marble was at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. Unfortunately, no review of this work seems available; has anyone engaged it?)

S.A. Wells, "American Drugs in Egyptian Mummies" (URL: http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~legneref/ethnic/mummy.htm) (This is posted on the University of California Riverside faculty website, though I could not identify an S.A. Wells at UCR.)

Judith Fein (?), "Maya and Egyptian Pyramids: A Hidden Connection?: An Egyptologist and a Mayanologist explore the pyramid connection," Psychology Today, Oct 31, 2011 (URL: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/life-is-trip/201110/maya-and-egyptian-pyramids-hidden-connection). Features Yolanda Ruanova, a Mexican Mayanologist and archeologist, and Manal Saad, an Egyptian-born Egyptologist and historian speculating based on observation, ultimately leaving the possibility of pre-Columbian contact an open question of debate.

Wells cites a fair amount of literature addressing various sides of the debate, but can anyone suggest any further scholarly sources beyond these?

I suggest that at least three religious-cultural-political issues complicate discussion of this historical question:

1- Ongoing attempts to either substantiate or discredit Book of Mormon claims regarding pre-Columbian contact;

2- Post-colonial efforts to 'decolonize' Native American history by insisting on recognition of independent achievements and contributions over against any interpretation which might allege/imply dependence and borrowing;

3- Eurocentric views which have a vested interest in safeguarding the superiority of Western civilization as traced (in this case) from Egypt (i.e., denial of any MesoAmerican claims to an 'advanced civlizational' legacy which might give it equality with and/or leverage against the 'Western' heritage).

Along with additional scholarly sources, I would welcome discussion which is based clearly and squarely on historical evidence (as opposed to mere opinion). I would also take interest in any thoughts on the three issues above which I suggest complicate the discussion.

All the best in 2019,

Charles (Weller)

Washington State University (History)

Georgetown University (ACMCU)

rc.weller@wsu.edu

Perhaps I misunderstand the objective of this particular course, but the description caught my attention. It reminds me a bit of hyperdiffusionism (not to be confused with diffusion). In the history of anthropology, as you may know, this debunked position is historically exemplified by the Egyptocentric (heliolithic) theory of Grafton Elliot Smith and W.J. Perry in the 1920s. Half a century later, an Afrocentric version appeared in Ivan van Sertima’s “They Came Before Columbus” (1976).
A lot of ink has been spilled on this issue, as you undoubtedly know. See also the 1997 article “Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertima's Afrocentricity and the Olmecs," by Gabriel Haslip‐Viera, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano and Warren Barbour, in: Current Anthropology Vol. 38, No. 3 (June 1997), pp. 419-441.
That said, your course may offer a fascinating opportunity to critically interrogate the ideological linkage between capitalism and popular theories in world history, from the heyday of colonialism to globalization.
Wishing you success!
Harald E.L. Prins

'Hyperdiffusionist' is certainly a 'hyper-misunderstanding' of the course, since I stated that the course was interested in addressing the debates concerning the various views involved, 'debunked' or otherwise. Alongside the history of med, sci & tech in WH itself, I'm interested in helping students understand – among a number of other complex related issues – the historical development of the debates surrounding questions of contact & exchange versus independent development.

While these debates involve certain underlying theories and issues, they each have their own particular historical circumstances and, thus, particular outcomes in terms of interpretation (cf. the ongoing heated debates over Islamic influence on Western 'civilization'). Apart perhaps from ‘hyperdiffusionism’, theories of crosscultural contact and exchange versus independent development can only be 'debunked' in relation to specific historical contexts. Any attempt to apply any one theory or approach as some sort of ‘key’ or mathematical formula to all historical contexts is reductionist and questionable at best.

Certainly cases of complete, isolated independent development exist, though as a general, long-term trend, they decrease across time as the intensity and density of world population, communications and travel all increase (cf. the history of ‘globalization’). In cases where crosscultural contact and exchange can be reasonably substantiated, or at least maintained as possible, then I myself tend toward ‘dynamic reflexive exchange’, i.e., exchange occurring in both or even multiple directions. In the face of any such encounters, sorting through the questions of just what should be attributed to ‘external influence/borrowing’ versus ‘internal innovation’ is, likewise, a complex and often contested task. With respect to any ‘external influence/borrowing’, this includes the question of relative degree within the exchange (cf. ‘stronger/weaker’ in relation to ‘dominant/subordinate’).

In conducting those debates, I find it important and integral as a historian to communicate varying degrees ‘probability’ in accordance with the historical evidence. While I myself still lean toward independent development in the case of the Mayan-Egyptian question, I see no clear evidence, apart from mere arguments from silence and/or postcolonialist protest, to rule out the remote possibility of some form of contact and exchange. I certainly share postcolonialist concerns for obvious cases when Western imperialist interpretations of history have been imposed for hegemonic purposes – which is central to my choice of Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men as one of the texts for the course – but I cannot allow such concerns to automatically determine my historical analysis and conclusions. Interestingly, the possible Mayan-Egyptian exchange which Wells discusses runs in the opposite direction, from the (so-called) Americas to the Near East, not vice versa.

Wells references, btw, one or two journals dedicated to research on pre-Columbian contact and exchange between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ worlds, one of which is called ‘Pre-Columbiana: A Journal of Long-Distance Contacts’ emanating from David Kelly, Paul Tolstoy, Carl Johannessen, Stephen C. Jett and others (http://www.earlysitesresearchsociety.org/our-journal.html). Any thoughts on their work? Have you ever contributed an article challenging any of their interpretations and/or theses?

All said, your expertise in indigenous peoples of the Americas, along with your recommended resources, are by all means appreciated. It is certainly an expertise I lack, thus my inquiry. Many thanks for the helpful response.

Charles (Weller)