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Grafton Elliot Smith, Egyptology and the Diffusion of Culture

A Biographical Perspective

Paul Crook has a Ph.D. from London University and a Doctorate of Letters from the University of Queensland, Australia, where he is Emeritus Professor in History. He has published widely on Anglo-American history and Darwinian themes. His books include Benjamin Kidd: Portrait of a Social Darwinist; Darwinism, War and History and Darwin’s Coat-Tails: Essays on Social Darwinism.


Grafton Elliot Smith rose from a colonial Australian background to dizzying heights in the British scientific establishment. He became a world authority on neuroanatomy and human prehistory, holding chairs at Cairo, Manchester and University College, London. He was best known publicly for his challenging theory of cultural diffusion, crossing the boundaries of anthropology, archaeology and history, stemming from his expert knowledge of evolution. Most controversy raged about his “Egyptian” theory, which placed ancient Egypt as the dynamic source from which major elements of civilization were spread by the migration of peoples and mores. This vision stemmed from his ground-breaking dissection of thousands of mummies in Egypt during the great excavations of the 1900s. His speculations, made in association with thinkers such as W. H. R. Rivers and W. J. Perry, bore fruit in a spate of publications that sparked global debate, arousing particular anger from American ethnologists opposed to ideas of foreign influence upon Mesoamerican cultures.

Elliot Smith’s ideas were regarded at the time as authentic, if problematic, approaches to important issues in human history. They were subsequently to be caricatured or ignored in anthropological and archaeological disciplines that had moved on to other paradigms. Paul Crook shows how his ideas were developed in the context of his life and times, examining the debates they aroused, his attempts to incorporate anthropology within a broader interdisciplinary school under his leadership in London, and his opposition to Nazi race theory in the 1930s. There has been no full-scale biography of Elliot Smith and little of substance analysing his works. Despite shortcomings, his theory and reputation deserve rehabilitation. An Afterword brings general readers up to date about the whole “diffusion” debate.


Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-481-9
Paperback Price: £19.95 / $29.95
Release Date: June 2011
   
Page Extent / Format: 140 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes
   



Preface


1. Early Days: Sydney, Cairo, Manchester (1871–1915)
2. Migrations of Early Culture (1915)
3. Dragons and Critics (1915–1920)
4. Elephants and Ethnologists (1920–1924)
5. The Evolution of Man (1924–1927)
6. The Diffusion Controversy (1927–1933)
7. Last Days (1933–1937)

Afterword

Notes
Bibliography
Index


Reviewed by Antiquity, copyright material, Summer 2012

Grafton Elliot Smith... was... “a great forgotten Australian” scientist...particularly expert in neuroanatomy. [His]examinations of hundreds of Egyptian mummies excited [his]interest in foreign cultures and human history in the long perspective... [He] postulated that Egypt’s sea traders stimulated civilisations, directly or indirectly, around the world... [Diffusionists]saw sun worship, kingship, and a number of other “culture traits” associated together again and again... This they took to be evidence for long-distance contacts... [Crook’s aim]... is to restore proper credibility to the scientific status of Elliot Smith, Rivers, and Perry... [His] book is well written, clear on the substances and the effects of the debates, and interesting for its explication of the role of Rockefeller funding in the politics of colonialism.
Australian Journal of Politics and History, reviewer Alice Kehoe

Grafton Elliot Smith (19871–1937) was, as Crook states, “a great forgotten Australian” scientist. He was a superb anatomist particularly expert in neuroanatomy. Like his friend W.H.R. Rivers, Elliot Smith conceived of a broad field he would call Human Biology, encompassing anatomy, physiology, paleontology, archaeology, and social anthropology. Rivers’s participation in the Torres Strait expedition and Elliot Smith’s examinations of hundreds of Egyptian mummies excited their interest in foreign cultures and human history in the long perspective. Both men, perhaps because they could view that from ocean-bound Australia, readily hypothesized seafaring to be ancient, very extensive, and strongly contributing to the developments of civilisations. Egypt demonstrating a civilisation as old as any other known in Elliot Smith’s pre-radiocarbon time, and acknowledged by the Greeks as the source of their learning, Elliot Smith postulated that Egypt’s sea traders stimulated civilisations, directly or indirectly, around the world.
... Crook emphasizes that Elliot Smith did not suppose Egyptians themselves sailed to every country. Their ideas and technology were, he argued, incorporated in nations they worked with, then with some variance passed on by those nations to others farther away. Elliot Smith, Rivers, and their student and colleague Will Perry were impressed by what they perceived as clusters or bundles of ideas and technology that seemed to occur as clusters in widely scattered locales. For example, a Papuan New Guinea mummy exhibited a process of preparation remarkably similar to Egyptian processes, which Elliot Smith as an anatomist knew was only one possible way of preparing a corpse for mummification. He and his colleagues saw sun worship, kingship, and a number of other “culture traits! Associated together again and again, although not apparently dependent on the others in the cluster. This they took to be evidence for long-distance contacts. Crook doesn’t discuss the fundamental problem with the argument, which is whether what an English scholar labels, e.g., “sun worship” in a variety of societies is a single phenomenon; most anthropologists today would not accept that Egyptian and Aztec symbols and rituals associated with the sun are basically the same ideology. Nineteenth-century scientists, in the Linnaean mode, expected to see a type specimen and compareit to other types, instead of studying range of variation. Darwin’s genius was to realize that range of variation is key. Elliot Smith, Rivers and Perry were Darwinists, they accepted descent with modification, but, trained early in Linnaean taxonomy, they too easily treated published descriptions of foreign beliefs, rituals and artefacts as reliable to use in comparisons seeking relationships. In a sense, they assumed evolution where, because described phenomena were not organic, there was no necessity for it.
... By coincidence, it seems, Joshua Smith published Egypt and the Origin of Civilization: The British School of Culture Diffusion, 1890s–1940s (Vindication Press, 2011) when Professor Crook was preparing this volume for the press. Smith’s aim, like Crook’s, is to restore proper credibility to the scientific status of Elliot Smith, Rivers, and Perry, and like Crook he attributes the mocking dismissal of the “diffusion school” to well-funded promotion of the Functionalist paradigm service colonialism, a 1928 shift of Rockefeller Foundation millions from Elliot Smith’s barely-established Human Biology programme at University College London to Malinowski’s at the LSE, aligned with Cecil Rhodes’ Oxford Centre. These two scholarly analyses of the historical academic context of debates over diffusion support each other. Crook’s book is well written, clear on the substances and the effects of the debates, and interesting for its explication of the role of Rockefeller funding in the politics of colonialism.
Alice Kehoe, University of Milwaukee, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Volume 58, Number 3, 2012

Reviewed in Australian Historical Studies, copyright material.


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