Alexander Goldenweiser.

Early civilization; an introduction to anthropology online

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of open work or filigree, the whole carving producing a
light lace-like effect. The totem poles of the Northwest
Coast, on the other hand, are gigantic posts looming far
above the roofs of the houses, while the carving is in high
or low relief, but not in open work, the total effect being
ponderous and massive. Without pressing the parallel too
closely, the New Ireland carvings might be likened to the
Gothic, those of the Northwest Coast to the Egyptian
styles of decoration. Now, under these conditions, should
the similarities between the arts of the two areas be ascribed
to historic contact or to independent origin?

Another illustration of a different type is provided by a
special variety of panpipe, in which each closed pipe is
coupled with an open one of approximately the same length
which sounds the octave of the closed one. This musical
instrument occurs only in two widely separated areas: in
the Solomon Islands and western Polynesia, and again, in
Peru and Bolivia. It was also found that a panpipe of
Northwestern Brazil was built to produce a system of sounds
which agreed very closely with the sound systems of some
specimens from the South Sea area. The similarity is un-
questionably a striking one, but the distance between the
two areas is great and the probability of historic contact
slight. Should the hypothesis of diffusion be adopted in
the face of such difficulties, or is independant origin to be
held responsible for the striking similarities in question,
which, in this case, would have to be regarded as accidental?
Numerous examples that have puzzled investigators and
have led to acrimonious discussion, are provided by the
domain of mythology. The so-called tale of the Magic
Flight is one. This tale contains the following incidents:
a flight from an ogre, objects thrown by the one pursued,
forming obstacles to the ogre's advance: first a stone which
turns into a mountain, then a comb which becomes a thicket,
and finally a bottle of oil which changes into a body of
water. This tale is widely but not continuously distributed


both in the Old and in the New Worlds. Can it be assumed
that the above group of incidents as part of one tale origi-
nated independently in the several areas?

The classical evolutionist was not greatly troubled over
examples such as this. To him all such instances attested
the similarity of the human mind and the parallelism of
cultural development. But we may not share the consoling
faith of the evolutionist. The universality of the phe-
nomena of diffusion amply attested to by the preceding dis-
cussion, does not permit one to stress the theory of inde-
pendent development at the expense of the alternative
possibility of explaining cultural similarities through a com-
mon ultimate origin or through historic dffusion from one
tribe to another.

Now, one factor will always favor the hypothesis of
diffusion: it is its demonstrability in specific instances;
whereas independent origin must at best always remain
problematic. Prompted by the historic ubiquity of diffu-
sion as well as by its demonstrability, a number of modern
students of cultural phenomena turned their backs upon the
generalizations of the evolutionist, showing a decided ten-
dency to interpret most or even all similarities of culture
through historic contact or ultimate unity of origin. First
among these students stands Ratzel, the geographer, to
whom we had occasion to refer in connection with his en-
vironmentalism. He was primarily concerned with objects
of material culture, having himself carried out several in-
tensive investigations of the distribution of material objects,
for example, of African bows, of a special variety of armor,
and the like. His view was that the interpretation of
similarities in this domain must lie in the direction of his-
toric contact. In spiritual factors he was less interested,
and here he allowed for the possibility of the independent
origin of similarities.

More recently, F. Graebner, a young student of history,
embraced the creed of Ratzel and developed it into a more
systematic as well as dogmatic ideological structure, at the


foundation of which lies the theory of diffusion. Graebner
rejects as improvable all explanations of similarities through
independent origin, pinning his faith on the possibility of
proving historic connection in all such instances. Graebner
is also primarily interested in material culture.

In still more recent years the theory of diffusion as a
system of interpretation of cultural similarities received a
fresh impetus through the work of Rivers, who in his two-
volume book on "The History of Melanesian Society" has
attempted a hypothetical historic reconstruction unprece-
dental in its complexity, with the theory of diffusion as his
principal tool. Among his followers, Elliot Smith has
achieved the questionable distinction of outdoing the dog-
matism of the evolutionist by his reckless utilization of
diffusion as an interpretation of widespread cultural simi-
larities, supporting his theory by a comparative material
apparently as inexhaustible in quantity and handled as un-
critically as was the comparative material of the evolu-

The value of the last-named theory cannot be examined
here. The idea of a Megalithic culture originated in the
Eighth Century B. C., in Egypt, spreading thence through
the Mediterranean region, over the southern areas of Asia
and the island expanses of Melanesia and Polynesia to the
remote countries of Mexico and Peru; this idea, however
alluring, would require a delicate technique and categorical
demonstration before it could claim serious attention. The
methods used by Elliot Smith are, on the contrary, so loose
that the entire speculative edifice erected by him can at best
be regarded as another link in that chain of top-heavy
hypotheses, born of uncontrolled flights of the imagination
and unchecked by either patient research or a strict method
of procedure.

The works of Graebner and Rivers stand on a different
level. The fundamental principles of Graebner's position
are these: the independent development of cultural simi-
larities can be assumed only after all attempts to demon-


strate diffusion have failed. The criteria of similarity are
two, one is qualitative in its nature, referring to the details
of similarity in the compared objects, beliefs or institutions;
the other criterion is a quantitative one, indicating how
many items of similarity can be discerned between two
areas or cultures, or separate aspects of such cultures. If
an examination from these two standpoints reveals con-
spicuous similarities, diffusion must be assumed, however
great the distance between the two areas in question and
however difficult or improbable historic contact between
them. On the basis of these assumptions Graebner builds
his theory of cultural strata and of "culture areas" 1 into
an examination of which we need not enter here.

Now, our discussion has shown that independent develop-
ment of similarities must be assumed as a general postulate
in connection with civilizational interpretations, although it
is, of course, true that rigorous proof of independent de-
velopment as against diffusion can but seldom be furnished.
It will have been noted that Graebner regards cultural
similarities as readily ascertained and evaluated. That,
however, is by no means the case. Two simple objects of
material culture, two stone knives, for instance, or two
paddles, can be compared with little difficulty; but as soon
as the elements compared reach a certain degree of com-
plexity or comprise psychological or sociological factors,
comparison becomes difficult and the concept of similarity
itself, vague. In the instance of the religious societies
referred to before, as well as in that of the decorative arts
of New Ireland and the Northwest Coast, numerous differ-

^raebner's "culture areas" (Kulturkreise) must be sharply distin-
guished from the culture areas of American ethnology; for whereas the
latter represent conceptualized descriptions of cultural complexes consti-
tuting actual geographical and historical units, Graebner's Kulturkreise
are purely hypothetical reconstructions, inferred from the geographical dis-
tributions of separate elements of culture.

A detailed statement of Graebner's position will be found in his
"Methode der Ethnologic," and brief expositions and criticisms, in Lowie
("The Concept of Convergence in Ethnology," Journal of American Folk-
Lore, 1912) and Boas (review of Graebner's book in Science, 1911). For
American culture area concept, see Wissler's "American Indian," Chapter
A.1 V*


ences are combined with equally numerous similarities.
Here the value of the qualitative and quantitative standards
as tests of the similarities involved is limited, if any con-
clusions are to be drawn with reference to the probability
of the independent development or of diffusion of such
similarities. It is precisely this difficulty of establishing
similarities and of appraising their extent and significance
which forces the student to introduce the geographico-his-
torical factor whenever questions of independent or derived
origin of similarities are to be decided. 1

Rivers' contributions to, the theory of diffusion are of
especial interest, as this investigator deserves great credit
for the introduction of a number of highly accurate and
serviceable methods into the domain of ethnological study.
He himself, moreover, regards his later works as distinct
contributions to the theory and methodology of diffusion.
There is, without question, a great difference between the
approach of Graebner and that of Rivers. The latter
evaluates psychological factors more justly than does
Graebner, thus achieving a closer approach to cultural
reality. Rivers insists, for example, that new cultural ele-
ments may appear as a result of culture contact, which were
not present in either of the two civilizations before contact
was achieved. A mere reference must suffice to his great
work on "The History of Melanesian Society," the second
volume of which represents a closely knit theoretical argu-
ment which stands alone in the entire domain of ethnology. 2
Two of the author's smaller contributions, however, readily

'In explanation of Graebner's extreme diffusionism, it must be said that
it reflects the outlook of a man who has dealt largely with material culture.
All of Graebner's principles apply more readily to this domain of civiliza-
tion than to any other. Diffusion, for example, is more easily demonstrable
with reference to objects than it is with reference to social customs or
religious ideas. Again, similarities between things are more readily de-
tected, described and evaluated than similarities between ideas, faiths or
forms of behavior. Also, material culture, if it persists at all, is more
likely to persist in a relatively unchanged form than is spiritual culture,
owing to the fact that material things are relatively immune against the
transforming influences of psychological agencies.

2 Unfortunately Rivers has not escaped the pitfalls of dogmatic diffusion-
ism (Cf. my review of Rivers' book in Science, Vol. 44, pp. 824-828, 1916).


lend themselves to a brief critical examination. Both refer
to Australia, and in both the author attempts to intercept
certain peculiarities of Australian civilization by an argu-
ment designed to demonstrate its cultural complexity. In
the article on "The Contact of Peoples," 1 Rivers notes the
contrast between the physical uniformity of the Australians
and the general cultural homogeneity of the continent, and
the strange diversity of the methods of disposal of the dead.
As Rivers states, nearly every one of the known methods of
disposal are practiced here : inhumation in the extended and
contracted positions, preservation on platforms and trees
and in caverns, a simple kind of embalming and also crema-

It is next to impossible to assume, claims Rivers, that so
great a variety of burial methods should have originated
independently in the continent of Australia. They must
have been brought from without. But how explain the fact
that the people who bestowed these many varieties of the
disposal of the dead upon the Australians did not simi-
larly influence the other aspects of their civilization and left
the physical type of the Australian untouched by intermar-
riage? Rivers' answer is this. As a guide to our inter-
pretation we must assume the following postulates: i, a
profound influence may be exerted by a foreign civilization,
although represented by but a few immigrants, if that civili-
zation is sufficiently superior to that of the natives to im-
press them as great and wonderful; and 2, civilizational
elements, even though useful, may disappear through a
change in fashion or, if the elements are imported, through
the non-adaptability of the recipient civilization. 2

Now then, it must be assumed that an immigrant people
with a superior civilization have found their way to Aus-

J In "Essays and Studies Presented to William Ridgeway, 1913, pp. 474 sq.

2 In a previous article on "The Disappearance of Useful Arts" (Wester-
raarck Anniversary Volume, 1912) Rivers has presented an argument for
this position. As an instance, he utilized the case of Polynesia, where the
once widespread bow and arrow has been relegated to the position of a
weapon of sport, the club having taken its place as a weapon of more
essential use.


tralia. Their number was small, but their civilization su-
perior. The natives were impressed. Especially striking to
the aborigines appeared the foreign funeral rites, and in
the course of time the new method of disposal of the dead
was adopted by the natives. The number of intruders hav-
ing been small, they were subsequently absorbed by the
native population without leaving any physical traces of
their former presence. Most of the civilizational changes
which they brought with them also disappeared, the crude
culture of the Australians proving a non-receptive soil; but
the new method of disposing of the dead persisted and re-
mained. Then there came another immigration, similarly
carried out by a few individuals representing a higher civili-
zation. Once more, the same process was gone through,
another method of burial being adopted by the natives
among other civilizational peculiarities. This was followed
by a second relapse, most of the newly imported cultural
features being again lost, excepting only the new method
of burial, which persisted. And as the number of the sec-
ond immigrants was also small, they were similarly absorbed
without any visible effect upon the native population. This
process was repeated again and again, until all the methods
of disposal of the dead now current in Australia were one by
one imported and adopted by the natives.

Now, can a theory of this sort be seriously considered
as an interpretation of a phase of Australian culture? The
feasibility of Rivers' postulates taken in themselves cannot
be denied, but the very number of hypothetical factors in-
troduced into his theory renders it so highly artificial that
even approximation to historic truth must in this case be
regarded as outside the range of probability.

In his essay on "The Sociological Significance of Myths," 1
Rivers argues that myths are made about the unusual. Now,
social organization, being one of the basic elements of civili-
zation, is, therefore, least likely to rise into conscious-
ness and to become a subject of mythological speculation.

"Folk-Lore, Vol. 23, 1912.


How is it, then, that myths in Central Australia are in-
vented about the clans as well as about the dual divisions?
The answer once more favors an interpretation through
culture contact. The myths about the clans are readily
explained, claims Rivers: these groups here are no longer
mere units of social organization, rather have they become
a ceremonio-religious institution, and, as such, they may be
expected to stimulate the myth building imagination. As
to the dual divisions, they must be regarded as of foreign
origin, this being the only way in which the mythologies
that have grown up about these divisions can be accounted
for. A people with a clan organization must have encoun-
tered one with dual divisions, and having adopted the lat-
ter, invented myths about these strange social units with
which they were formerly unacquainted.

Once more, the high artificiality of the theory must dis-
pose of it as a serious attempt at cultural interpretation.
For, what is the probability of the picture drawn by Rivers
actually reflecting historic reality?

If space permitted we might have discussed here Wiss-
ler's comparative sketch of Blackfoot material culture, in
which a minute comparison of traits between this tribe and
other Plains tribes leads to the conclusion that the Black-
foot must have borrowed all of the fundamental elements
of their material culture, having originated none. Or, we
might have followed the same author in his careful historic
reconstruction of the diffusion of horse culture in the Plains.
The horse, originally of Spanish importation, gradually
made its way northward, spreading from tribe to tribe.
Wissler argues convincingly that the presence of the horse,
which added nothing but itself to Plains civilization,
nevertheless contributed to the cultural physiognomy of this
area by precipitating intertribal intercourse and thereby
stimulating the diffusion and interpenetration of cultural
traits. Still another essay that would have deserved espe-
cial attention is Lowie's monograph on the Age Societies of
the Plains Indians. In this historical and comparative sum-


mary, the tribal societies are subjected to a most minute
analysis from the standpoint of the features which they
comprise, and are, as a result of such an analysis, ultimately
classified as originators, borrowers or transmitters of the
various traits.

It must suffice here to merely refer to these meritorious
contributions, while taking time to deal somewhat more
carefully with Berthold Laufer's essay "The Potter's
Wheel." 1 It is well known that among primitive tribes pots
are made by hand, but among tribes on a higher civiliza-
tional level pots are often turned on the wheel, a much more
expeditious and efficient method. Now the potter's wheel,
argues Laufer, is distributed through a well defined area.
It is found only in the Old World: in ancient Egypt, the
Mediterranean and west Asiatic civilizations, Iran, India
and China with her dependencies. In this area the distribu-
tion of the potter's wheel has remained practically un-
changed for milleniums. On the other hand, primitive
tribes do not seem to adopt it even when surrounded by
more civilized groups who have it. Thus, the Vedda of
Ceylon fashion pots by hand, while the neighboring Singa-
lese use the wheel. The African Negroes, who might have
learned the use of the wheel from the ancient Egyptians or
later from the Arabs, never seem to have been acquainted
with its use. The Yakut of Northeastern Siberia continue
to produce pottery by hand, notwithstanding their inter-
marriages with the Russians and the fact that wheel-made
Russian pottery is for sale at Yakutsk. Now, hand-made
pottery, argues Laufer, is as a rule woman's work, the par-
ticipation of men in this pursuit being always strictly local-
ized and limited. The potter's wheel, on the other hand, is
the creation of man. It must therefore be regarded as an
entirely distinct invention which entered the field of pot-

*In his monograph on the "Beginnings of Porcelain in China," Field
Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Series, Vol. XV, No. z, pp.


tery from the outside, as it were, and when it came, man
came with it and took over the pot-making industry.

This historic distinctness of the two methods of pottery
making is reflected in the customs current in different coun-
tries. In India and China the division of ceramic labor
sets apart the thrower or wheel potter and separates him
from the molder. The potters of India who work on the
wheel do not intermarry with those who do not. They
form a caste by themselves. There is also a functional dis-
tinction between the two kinds of pots. And most impor-
tant of all, wherever the potter's wheel is in use, it is
manipulated by men, never by women.

Technically speaking, the potter's wheel is nothing but
a primitive cart wheel turning on its axle. The existence
of the potter's wheel therefore presupposes the existence
of the wheel adapted to transportation. In accordance
with this, it is found that in all of the civilizations with the
potter's wheel, the cart wheel is also in use. Further,
wherever the potter's wheel occurs, while the <wheel cart
does not, the former is known to have been introduced from
a different culture. In Japan, for example, which had no
cart, the potter's wheel has been introduced from Korea,
while the Tibettans, who also lack wheel vehicles, received
the potter's wheel from the Chinese, who still have the
monopoly of its handling in Tibet. On the other hand,
wherever there is no potter's wheel, there is also no wheeled
cart. In other words, in all cases where original conditions
have remained undisturbed, the wheel cart and the potter's
wheel either do not exist or co-exist. It is thus clear, con-
cludes Laufer, that the potter's wheel may not be con-
ceived as an evolutionary stage in the development of pot-
tery technique; that there is nothing in hand-made pottery
to prepare such future development; that the potter's
wheel, which by its technical aspect and geographic dis-
tribution is unmistakably identified with the cart wheel,
belonged to a distinct and localized civilization, and, being


like the cart wheel man's invention, came into the industry
of pot making from the outside, bringing man with it.

The critical acumen displayed throughout this essay, only
fragments of which can be given here, is extraordinary and
it carries conviction. The contribution of the great sinol-
ogist represents one of the most illuminating examples of
the striking results that can be obtained when the theory
of diffusion, instead of being used as a sweeping principle
of interpretation, is applied with unceasing care and critical
circumspection, at the hand of relevant comparisons and
minute studies of local peculiarities.

Notwithstanding the methodological weakness of Rivers'
handling of the problem of diffusion, he deserves credit for
drawing attention to the multiplicity of psychological factors
involved and for paving the way for their solution. Clearly,
the conception that diffusion is a quasi-mechanical process of
the physical transplantation of cultural traits from one tribe
to another, cannot withstand serious criticism. It is not
enough to realize that a cultural feature leaves its original
home, travels and arrives in a foreign tribe. It is equally
important to know how and why it departs, what fates
befall it in its wanderings and what reception it receives
in its new home.

A passage from another publication may prove illuminat-
ing in this connection:

"But even the most superficial analysis would suffice to
show how little we know about a cultural situation when all
we know about it is that a feature belonging to a culture
has been borrowed by another culture. How often does
such a feature remain a foreign body in its new cultural
environment ! Instance the art nowveau of western Europe,
which, toward the end of the past century, spread through
the domain of the plastic and decorative arts, and, from
a modest beginning in its application to small decorative
objects, rose to the level of a new artistic style, and all but
created a novel form of architecture. Eventually the art
nouveau crossed the Atlantic, but, in its new surroundings,


proved most ineffective. After languishing for a number
of years in the show-windows of fashionable stationery and
art stores, it vanished without leaving any apparent trace
on any form of American art.

"A somewhat striking example of a cultural feature
which, notwithstanding a prolonged objective association
with a cultural medium, failed to be psychologically assimi-
lated by that medium, is furnished by the history of classical

Online LibraryAlexander GoldenweiserEarly civilization; an introduction to anthropology → online text (page 26 of 36)