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Culture-History

Uncovering Theory Topic #2

Culture-History

Starting in the mid-19th century, the culture-historical approach was the main method used by archaeologists to think about prehistoric cultures. In this paradigm, the geographical distribution of material culture was used to create timelines of major occurrences and cultural change. It was assumed that stylistic variation were a straightforward indicator of cultural differences.

Under this paradigm, a culture was thought to be the the material manifestations of the people who created those artifacts. Further, different cultures (or material groupings of artifacts) were thought to represent different ethnic groups.

Culture-historians are said to have had a “normative” view of culture. This means that not only are artifacts expressions of cultural norms, but the cultural norms also define the culture. There are a number of problems with this line of thinking, starting with the fact that culture-historians tended to view culture as unchanging. In order to explain changes that occurred in material culture, culture-historians adopted the idea of diffusion.

Diffusion became a major topic within the culture-historical paradigm. The idea that cultures could independently invent the same idea was dismissed. This interpretation relies on the idea that large numbers of people moved great distances, bringing their material culture with them.

Some culture-historians went even further with the idea of diffusion, going so far as to hypothesize that all cultural traits originated from one location in the Middle East, though the origin location was up for debate. Grafton Elliot Smith thought that all cultural development had occurred in Egypt and was brought to the rest of the Ancient World by merchants. Lord Raglan proposed a similar theory but thought that Mesopotamia was the source of all cultural development. This idea of all cultural development happening in one location and being spread out to the rest of the world is referred to as hyperdiffusion. 

 

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