Grafton Elliot Smith

Grafton Elliot Smith, Egyptology and the Diffusion of Culture

Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937) is a great forgotten Australian. He was one of the world’s pioneering anatomists, an authority on human evolution, and a renowned, if controversial, amateur archaeologist/anthropologist. He wrote numerous scholarly and popular works, founded a leading edge medical and social science school at University College of the University of London, and was made a fellow of the Royal Society and a knight of the realm. Yet today his name is virtually unknown in the land of his birth, partly no doubt because he lived most of his life in Britain – although he traveled widely and often revisited his homeland, not least significantly when he was hugely instrumental in setting up anthropology as an academic discipline in Australia.

Elliot Smith is worth remembering, and I hope that this little book will help in that respect. It is not a biography as such, but rather a history of the man and his ideas put in the context of his life and times, with the major focus on his much contested theory of the diffusion of culture, which put Egypt as the fountain-head of human civilization, the centre from which major elements of civilization were spread by the migration of peoples and ideas. I want to revisit his writings, robust and challenging, but always scientific in their methodology ; to see them in the light of contemporary events – such as the exciting archaeological discoveries of the early twentieth century and the catastrophic First World War – and to look at the way people reacted to his theories. I do not wish to put forward any hagiographical or total defence of his position; but at the same time I believe that some redressing of the intellectual balance is required. His diffusionist model may not have become – as it at one stage seemed to promise to become – the ruling paradigm in anthropology, but nor has it been conclusively refuted, despite being much ridiculed in some academic circles. Elliot Smith didn’t win his debate – although he contended to the end against such heavyweights as Bronislaw Malinowski that it was winnable. Rather than being refuted by systematic research, it is contendable that the discourses of anthropology and archaeology simply moved on to other issues and embraced other methodologies. Many central ideas raised by Elliot Smith and co-diffusionists such as W. J. Perry were essentially side-stepped and never really subjected to sustained scrutiny. Elliot Smith would have been the first to welcome such scrutiny. Scientific progress, he always said, was a matter of offering hypotheses and testing them rigorously, and he always professed himself more than willing to accept conclusions that contradicted his own suggestions. My overall message is that Elliot Smith’s prodigious labours and fertile ideas – so long unfairly caricatured and stereotyped in the ethnological literature – deserve considered reassessment.

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