Focusing on the notion that similarities among cultures resulted from components spreading from one culture to another, diffusionism is often seen as a reaction to the paradigm of classic unilinear evolutionism, which traced cultural development to the ability of cultures to innovate independently. The major names in the early years of diffusionism worked in the great museums of central Europe, studying the distribution of artifacts and coming to the conclusion that cultures were patchworks of traits, with each trait having its own origin and history. Grounded in museum empiricism and relatively modest in theory, diffusionism successfully attracted scholars away from evolutionism in the first few decades of the 20th century.
Some diffusionists, mostly German- and English-speaking, thought they could discover the earliest forms of human behavior by mapping the distribution of cultural traits in non-Western societies; the most widely distributed traits would be the oldest. Some diffusionists were determined to prove that all human culture originated in one place and then spread through diffusion, such as Englishmen G. Elliot Smith (1871-1937) and W. J. Perry, who created what is often called the” pan-Egyptian” or “heliolithic” (sometimes known as the “heliocentric”) school. The German-Austrian culture historical or culture circle (also known by the German word kulturkreis) school and the American historical particularists were more restrained. Since the North American school is usually discussed separately, the entry will concentrate on the English and German-Austrian approaches.
An anatomist distinguished for his work on the brain, Smith traveled to Egypt to study mummies. When he returned to Cambridge University, he noticed the tri-angular similarities between the English megaliths and Egyptian pyramids. He then observed that variations of the triangular form appeared widespread in many cultures, including Native American burial mounds.
Beginning in 1911, he published articles and books that concluded that all civilization had originated in Egypt and had diffused to the rest of the world beginning in about 4000 BC. Smith wrote that after observing seeds sprouting out of the fertile soils along the Nile River, the ancient Egyptians began planting seeds on their own. After learning to predict the river’s floods and developing irrigated agriculture, they invented the technologies of civilization, along with cities, government, and a religion that centered on sun worship and burial of sun kings in pyramids. Seeking gems for these burials, they navigated the globe and brought their superior civilization to other cultures. Until the diffusion of the triangular form, and along with it all the accoutrements of civilization, prepyramid cultures were abjectly primitive.
Building on the work of the geographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), who suggested that traits had unique forms that would allow investigators to trace them, the early diffusionists constructed a worldwide template of trait routes and culture contacts. The major figures in the culture circle school were Leo Frobenius (1873-1938), Fritz Graebner (1877-1934), and Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954). A noted authority on prehistoric art, Frobenius led 12 expeditions into Africa between 1904 and 1935. Trained as a historian, Graebner worked in museums in Berlin and Cologne and developed a surprisingly accurate prehistory of Oceania that involved six successive cultural stages: Tasmanian, Australian boomerang, totemic hunters, two-class horticulturists, Melanesian bow culture, and Polynesian patrilineal culture. Each of these culture circles had counterparts in Africa and elsewhere, and as the traits migrated, they blended, disappeared, grew, borrowed, and accommodated. To describe these diffusions, Graebner constructed an elaborate and often arcane jargon consisting of primitive, secondary, and tertiary circles, each containing a variety of subcircles, such as marginal, peripheral, and overlapping subcircles. Graebner’s 1911 Methode der ethnologie is the classic of the evolutionists (in English, however, there exists only a seven-page summary in V. F. Calverton’s 1931 The Making of Man).
In a sophisticated way, the diffusionists combined data from biological anthropology, historical documents, historical linguistics, and stratigraphic archaeology to construct the culture circles, which were essentially aggregates of traits arranged spatial and temporally. An elaborate statistics program was applied to uncover significant associations among the traits. This impressive enterprise acknowledged the influence on diffusion of conquest, cultural predispositions, geographic barriers and conduits, personalities, religious proselytization, trade, socioeconomic differentiation, and a variety of other factors.
Although most diffusionists assumed that the culture circle would grow naturally out of an analysis of the data, Schmidt, who was a Jesuit priest, thought that all foragers believed in a supreme god and that this pristine Christian-like belief was later corrupted by animistic notions. Schmidt also believed that Pygmies represented the original humans and that they had populated the world by emigrating from Tasmania. He wrote a 12-volume work of world prehistory titled Der ursprung der gottesidee, published between 1926 and 1955 (which has not been translated into English except for a one-volume summary).
In addition to its erroneous interpretation of data, the position of the heliolithic school rests largely on the unacceptable notion that the simple triangle is a unique form that could be invented only once. Although the heliocentric approach no longer exists in anthropology, it is found in the folk models of Western societies, especially in England, where W. J. Perry popularized the approach in his 1923 book, The Children of the Sun.
The culture circle school generally has had bad press in the English-speaking world, though Clyde Kluckhohn and Robert Lowie gave it favorable reviews. Although Graebner and Schmidt conducted no fieldwork, they did inspired scholars to do serious research among Pygmies, such as that done by Paul Schebesta. Some of the diffusionist principles are used by art historians, and distribution approaches remain an important technique in archaeology. Anthropologists are still interested in studying the diffusion of ideas and innovations, especially as they spread from the major industrial powers to the rest of the world.
Pioneers in quantitative anthropology, the diffusionists also introduced a relativism that seeped rather unacknowledged into U.S. anthropology, for their patchwork, nonunilineal argument meant that there were no straightforward connections between, for example, technological and theological complexity. The diffusionists also emphasized detailed empirical investigations and comparative methods, both of which became hallmarks of modern anthropology.
- Brandewie, E. (1990). When giants walked the earth: The life and times ofWilhelm Schmidt, SVD. Fribourg, witzerland: University Press.
- Graebner, F. (1931). Causality and culture. In V. F. Calverton (Ed.), The making of man (pp. 421-428). New York: Modern Library.
- Koppers, W. (1952). Primitive man and his world picture. London: Sheed & Ward.
- Lowie, R. (1937). The history of ethnological theory. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
- W. J. (1923). The children of the sun: A study in the early history of civilization. London: Methuen.
- Schebesta, P. (1933). Among Congo Pygmies. London: Hutchinson.
- Schmidt, W. (1931). The origin and growth of religion. London: Methuen.
- Schmidt, W. (1939). The culture historical method of ethnology: The scientific approach to the racial question. New York: Fortuny’s.
- Smith, G. E. (1915). The Ancient Egyptians and the origin of civilization (Rev. ed.). London: Harper.