Paul Crook’s Grafton Elliot Smith, Egyptology and the Diffusion of Culture (2012)

The work of the eminent anthropologist and archeologist Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937) was always controversial. He argued that Egypt was the source of many of the aspects of civilization in other parts of the world, and that similarities among cultures in different parts of the world often the product of diffusion rather than independent discoveries. Recent scholars have been dismissive; Ian Morris declares that ‘since the 1950s archaeology has disproved nearly all Elliot Smith’s claims.’ But they remain very interesting to engage with, as Paul Crook does in an intriguing new book.

Why does thinking along such lines seem so difficult? Partly, no doubt, because diffusionism lends itself to wacky theorizing. Gavin Menzies’ book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World  (2002) argued that in the early fifteenth century Chinese fleets travelled far from home in  a series of voyages in which they circumnavigated  Greenland, Russia, South America and Australia. More recently, he has claimed that Chinese who arrived in Italy in 1434 were largely responsible for the Renaissance, and that the reach of the ancient Minoans, whose civilization he identifies with that of Atlantis, extended to India and America. In a series of volumes entitled Black Athena(1991ff), Martin Bernal argued that much of the civilization of ancient Greece was derived from the Egyptians, whom he sees as having been largely African. The argument here was more learned, far more geographically plausible, and not necessarily vitiated by the political agenda of its author, but has failed to carry the bulk of scholarly opinion. And behind such theories stands The Book of Mormon published by Joseph Smith in 1830, according to which a group that left Jerusalem shortly before the capture of the city by the Babylonians sailed to America; it has generally been felt that its attribution of such things as horses, cattle and elephants to pre-Columban America makes it difficult to take seriously, and DNA tests have failed to show any correspondence between the peoples of the Middle East and the Americas.

Another consideration pulling one away from diffusionism is the fact that peoples in different parts of the world have independently discovered the same thing. I am fascinated by the work of the Russian scientist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov who, on the basis of an enormous seed bank accumulated at Leningrad after the Revolution of 1917, argued that food crops were independently domesticated at up to ten different locations, in Eurasia and the Americas. While a lot of work has been done since Vavilov’s time, and his principle that crops are likely to have originated in areas where their descendants display the greatest diversity has proved problematic, his conclusions largely stand, and agriculture is regarded as having originated independently in a number of scattered locations. 

Despite all this, other important work makes it clear that diffusion explains some things. Joseph Needham’s massive Science and Civilisation in China, which Paul Crook mentions,  is one of the great historical works of the twentieth century, and showed China to have been from ancient times remarkably inventive, although I cannot be the only person to find the whole of Needham’s work less than the sum of its parts. And many Chinese innovations found their way to Europe across the world of Islam in medieval times, just as Indian numerals did, although it seems that these had become known in some Eastern Christian circles shortly before the advent of Islam. Voyages of ancient Egyptians across the oceans, as Elliott Smith’s theories required, are more difficult to credit. Yet diffusionism is ripe for defence, and Paul Crook’s new book, that functions as a biography of the most important person ever to have been born in Grafton but is really concerned with intellectual history, provides a fascinating account of his achievement and suggests that the time has come for his work to be taken more seriously. He argues that Elliott Smith was a serious scientist, ‘many of [whose] observations, examples and speculations continue to offer signals for future research.’ I thoroughly recommend it to readers who want to be challenged about some of the most important issues in world history.


  • Paul Crook

    Many thanks John for your kind review. I would just like to add for sceptics about the feasibility of trans-oceanic travel in earlier times, and especially on ships and voyages of indigenous peoples across the Pacific, that they might like to consult the work of Alice Beck Kehoe in this field. She has written much on this, but it is conveniently summarised in her delightful short book for general readers Controversies in Archaeology (2008). There is a balanced chapter on the Diffusion versus Independent Invention Controversy in chapter 7. She is also very enlightening when discussing the problems female archaeologists putting unfashionable views within the profession faced in the US (inspired by personal experience).

  • John

    Thank you, Paul. It will be very interesting to read her work.

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