Diffusionism: what it is, and characteristics of this anthropological school
Let's see what is diffusionism, an anthropological school that seeks to explain the first civilizations.
Throughout the history of anthropology, a series of theoretical currents have been generated to explain the observed phenomena.
One of the most important in the last century was diffusionism.. Next we will stop to be able to know the features that define this school, what innovations it contributed in front of other already existing movements and other important characteristics.
What is diffusionism?
Within the different theoretical currents that try to give a foundation to anthropological phenomena, diffusionism is one of them. This movement emerged when the 19th century gave way to the 20th. The basis of this school, according to its proponents, is that the different human societies, since their origin, have been creating their culture thanks to the imitation of neighboring groups, such as other tribes, villages or cities..
Therefore, the culture of a given group or ethnic group would be nourished by what they have been observing in other communities, which in turn have observed it in others beyond. According to diffusionism, therefore, the final result is a mixture of very small parts of knowledge shared among different peoples, mainly due to their geographical proximity.
Diffusionism arose in opposition to evolutionism, another current that gained strength throughout the 19th century and that defended the progressive complexity that a culture would acquire, due to the creativity of human beings. On the contrary, diffusionism attributes such complexity to the mere exposure to other nearby cultures with which it shares and exchanges elements.
One of the main promoters of this school was Friedrich Ratzel, a German geographer.German geographer. Ratzel's position on man's great inventions was that they did not take place in different places in parallel, but always arose in a specific place and from there began their spread to neighboring areas and so on until they covered the entire known world.
Friedrich Ratzel managed to influence other authors, such as his pupil, Leo Frobenius, who continued to develop the theoretical basis of diffusionism.. Frobenius spoke of the so-called cultural circles, or kulturkreise, in German. According to this author, there were a series of these primordial circles, which would belong to the ancestral cultures from which almost all knowledge would have spread to other areas, sometimes very far away.
If we take the theory of cultural circles to the extreme and follow the idea of diffusionism to its purest essence, we find the texts of authors such as Grafton Elliot Smith, hyperdiffusionistwho defended the idea that the civilization of Ancient Egypt was the cultural origin of all others, regardless of their geographical distance.
This is a really ambitious statement, because according to Grafton's theory, even the pre-Columbian American civilizations would have been influenced by Egypt. The explanation that this author proposes is that of a pilgrimage of hundreds of Egyptian priests that took place seven millennia ago, searching for the source of life throughout the length and breadth of the globe. This movement facilitated the spread of Egyptian culture and knowledge to other places.
Grafton suggests that from Asia, some of these priests may have made their way to the American continent and transmit parts of their culture to the men who would later raise the Inca or Aztec civilizations, where certain parallels have been observed, which are the ones that this author holds as proof of his approach in order to justify a hyperdiffusionism.
This school's approach is also known as monocentric diffusionism, since in this case they would be proposing a version of the cultural circles in which only one would have existed at first, and from there the knowledge would have been transmitted to other places, creating in turn new circles.
Other authors who defend extreme diffusionism have proposed that agriculture, as one of the main innovations in the history of mankind, is something that was discovered only once and progressively spread among all existing peoples.among all existing peoples. This discovery would have taken place in the region known as the Fertile Crescent, in the Mediterranean Levant.
However, other authors are more cautious and speak of polycentric diffusionism, i.e., of a few main areas from which all the knowledge and inventions have been propagating. There would not be many but neither would there be only one, as in the Ancient Egyptian theory. Some of the anthropologists who represented this theory were Fritz Graebner or Wilhelm Schmidt.
These authors point out different points in the Old World where the first cultural circles could be located. They place them in the basins of the main rivers of Africa and Asia, such as the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Indus or the Huang He, also known as the Yellow River. But they also include other points in America where these first areas of influence could have been formed. They propose the area of the Andes and also Mesoamerica.
In any case, most of the diffusionist authors agree on the importance of the lands near the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean as the origin of the first and main cultural circles.. It would be from these regions from where the human being would have expanded, in all senses, both geographically and culturally.
According to these theories, the great technological contributions that would have allowed the changes of era would have been produced in these areas and from there they would have been progressively shared with the nearby population centers until spreading to all the civilized corners of the world. In this way, for example, the Stone Age would have passed from the Stone Age to the Iron Age.
Another author who dealt with polycentric diffusionism was the American Clark Wissler, who added a new dimension to this concept.who added a new dimension to this theory. According to this anthropologist, cultural circles would have more influence and would transmit their knowledge more efficiently to nearby areas. Therefore, the further we move away from these regions, the weaker this influence would become and the weaker the contributions would be.
This mechanism works at the geographical level but also at the temporal level, since cultural innovations take a certain amount of time to move from a cultural center to more distant areas. Therefore, when we find a certain trait closer to such a circle, we could assume that the characteristic in question is older than a similar one found in a more peripheral region.
However, this mechanism of diffusion proposed by Wissler was criticized by authors who considered that he was not taking into account an important factor when establishing his reasoning. The issue underpinning these criticisms is that not all knowledge, customs, innovations or traits of a culture need to be transmitted at the same rate.
Diffusionism was also represented by the Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe. He spoke of cultural transmission among the Indo-European peoples but also established a main focus on Ancient Greece as a cultural circle that was transmitted to all societies bathed by the Mediterranean Sea.
Childe defended a more moderate diffusionism in which part of the culture would indeed be transmitted between different societies, while other innovations would arrive due to the conditions to which a given society was subjected. In this sense, the author would be combining the postulates of diffusionism with Marxist ideas.
Finally, as an example of diffusionism taken to the extreme, we find the theories of Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian ethnographer. Heyerdahl undertook a series of boat expeditions between very distant regions to try to demonstrate empirically that very ancient civilizations had within their reach the means to have empirically demonstrate that very ancient civilizations had within their reach the means to have moved and made contact with other societies, and that they could have been in contact with them..
If this were so, the principles of monocentric diffusionism that we had seen earlier would gain force, in which, for example, Ancient Egypt could have been the cultural cradle of the main innovations that would later be exported to very distant places.
Today, diffusionism has been partially integrated into anthropology as a theoretical basis for so-called cultural borrowing between different societies.. Therefore, it is accepted that all elements of human culture can be transferred to another human group, but this does not mean that this necessarily has to happen.
In fact, there are cultures that prefer a certain isolation from other societies in order to preserve certain customs and traditions without being influenced or modified by external cultures. Therefore, as of today we could conclude that diffusionism has served to explain some phenomena of anthropology but has not become a predominant school.
- Harris, N.; del Toro, R.V. (1999). The development of anthropological theory: history of theories of culture. Siglo Veintiuno Editores.
- Restrepo, E. (2016). Classic schools of anthropological thought. Cuzco: Vicente Torres Editor.
- Scarduelli, P. (1977). Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. Editorial Villalar.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)