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Olmec origins: Where are the Africans?


Nearly 600 people filled the Bing Auditorium at the Los Angeles County Art Museum (LACMA) to hear the closing lecture for the exhibit “Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico.”

The round table, held Sunday, was put together in a scant six-week period as the result of input from the community and the Board of Supervisors, according to Brooke Davis Anderson, new deputy director of curatorial planning at LACMA.

The large turnout was expected, and the audience featured a distinctive cross section of Angelenos. Many of those in attendance were very outspoken on the discussion topic: theories on the origins of the Olmec. They were also there because of what they considered a grave oversight and injustice.

“We were elated, when we found out that the exhibit was here, and a number of people came out (to see it) on opening day,” explained Astenu Brown about the controversy which began in early October. “We were devastated, when not one panel (in the exhibit) mentioned the theory of the African origins of the Olmec,” added Brown, who is an organizing member of the watchdog group the Committee to Eliminate Media Offensive to African People (CEMOTAP).

When CEMOTAP inquired about the omission, Brown said they were told that there was no evidence to prove an African connection to the Olmecs.

That response prompted a letter-writing campaign and an eventual appearance before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Nov. 22 demanding a change to the exhibition’s narrative and an investigation into the diversity of LACMA’s board.

Brown noted that problems with previous exhibits such as Pharaohs of the Sun and King Tut, where the African connection was either ignored or downplayed, prompting CEMOTAP to act.

“Our children have the right to have our history told,” said Brown about why the absence must be addressed. “There is a lot of focus on the 20th century, but when you start talking about the foundation of civilization, people are not willing to acknowledge the African influence on the development of world history.”

Brown adds that CEMOTAP is not asking LACMA and other art and cultural entities to focus on an African-centered history, but said they have to “promote other points of view, if they are going to be intellectually honest.”

The round-table discussion featured three prominent local researchers–Virginia Fields, Ph.D., and senior curator of art of the ancient Americas at LACMA; Kevin Terraciano, a professor of Latin American History at UCLA; and Toni-Mokjaetji Humber, Ph.D., professor of ethnic studies at Cal Poly Pomona and author of “Where Black is Brown: The African Presence in Mexico.”
Humber, specifically talked about her findings during travels to Mexico, in particular, “the little Black man in the cave.”

Additionally during the question-and-answer period, a number of other researchers presented their findings supporting the fact that the Olmecs were African-descended people. These included professor Kwauku Person-Lynn; Mathua Tare; and Eva Hones (Ya Asantawa) who studied with the seminal researcher Ivan Van Sertima (who wrote about the Olmecs in his book, “They Came Before Columbus”).

Other people discussed the epicanthic fold; the scant availability of Olmec skeletal material for DNA testing except for a recently discovered Manati sacrifice; and the fact that ancient Africans had mastered the ability to use sea currents to take them from the west coast to the east coast of Mexico.

The round table concluded with the decision that more research needed to be done, and Brown of CEMOTAP said his organization will continue to put pressure on mainstream organizations like LACMA to be more inclusive and more diverse.