Grafton Elliot Smith

From Academic Kids

Grafton Elliot Smith, (August 15, 1871 in Grafton, New South Wales, - January 1, 1937) in London was an Australian anatomist and a famous proponent of the hyperdiffusionist view of prehistory.


Professional Career

He was awarded a degree in medicine at the university of Sydney (Doctor of Medicine in 1895, with a dissertation on the fore-brain of the monotremes) and developed an interest in the anatomy of the human brain. He held a travelling scholarship at Cambridge in 1896, then he catalogued the human brain-collection of the British Museum. From 1900-1909 he was the first chairholder of anatomy at the Cairo School of Medicine and investigated the brains of Egyptian mummies. He was the first scholar to x-ray a mummy.

In 1907 he became archaeological advisor to the archaeological survey of Nubia. From 1909-1919 he was Professor for anatomy in Manchester, 1919-1937 he held the chair of Anatomy at the University College London. During World War I he attended military hospitals for shell shock and served on the British General Medical Council.

Smith was the leading specialist on the evolution of the brain of his day, many of his ideas on the evolution of the primate brain still form the core of present scholarship. He proposed the following stages of development:

  1. a smell dominated insectivore stage of jumping shrew-type
  2. vision dominated animals with an expanded cortex of tree-shrew-tpye
  3. acutely visioned, manually dexterous mammals of tarsius-type
  4. monkeys
  5. anthropoids using their hands to use and produce tools

He was decorated by the Khedife of Egypt, Abbas Hilmy in 1909. He became Fellow of the Royal society, FRCP, cross of the French Legion of Honour, and a peer in 1934. In 1912 he received the Royal Medal of the Royal Society, in 1930 the Honorary Gold Medal of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1930, in 1936 the Huxley Medal.


Smith believed that all megalithic phenomena, be it in Northwestern Europe, India, Japan or Mesoamerica, originated in ancient Egypt. "Small groups of people, moving mainly by sea, settled at certain places and there made rude imitations of the Egyptian monuments of the Pyramid Age." (Smith 1911, ix). Smith believed in a direct diffusion to Syria, Crete, East Africa, Southern Arabia and Sumer, while other areas were influenced by secondary diffusion. The neolithic culture of Europe was derived from Egypt as well, according to Smith. The term 'hyperdiffusionism' seems to have been coined by the British archaeologist Glyn Daniel (The idea of prehistory, 1962) in a mainly derogatory intention.

The Role of Egypt

Egypt held a fortunate geographical position that made contacts to western Asia and the Mediterranean possible, while being safe from invasions. The fertile soil led to ample leisure, in art and the crafts could be cultivated. Smith believed that agriculture did originate in Egypt, and only later spread to Mesopotamia. "The earliest cultivators of the soil in Egypt were in fact laying the foundations not merely of agriculture and irrigation but of all the arts and craft, the social organization and religious beliefs which became an integral part of the civilization that was being built up sixty centuries ago and in later ages was diffused throughout the world. (Smith 1911, 6)."

Artificial irrigation led to cooperation and the development of a central government that was based on professional knowledge, a rule of hydraulic engineers. The prosperity of everybody depended on a successful administration and a strong central government (cf. Wittvogel's hydraulic hypothesis). Later on, the leading engineer became a sacred king (cf. Henry Frankfort) and a god (Osiris) after death. Ritual and magic formed the germs of the first sciences, of biology and physics. The building of tombs initiated the development of architecture.

Other inventions of the Egyptians were:

  • Weaving
  • Metal working (gold and copper)
  • A calendar
  • Seagoing ships
  • The "art of shaving"
  • Wigs
  • Hats
  • Pillows

The invention of metallurgy was the most important, as it quickened the pace of invention, widened the scope of human endeavour, stimulated the advancement of arts and crafts and awakened courage and the spirit of great adventure. The search for copper was to become the most important factor in the universal spread of civilisation. Prospectors settled in foreign countries and introduced agriculture, burial customs and their religion as well.

At first, Smith remained vague on the reasons for the spread of Egyptian influence to places without mineral deposits like Polynesia. But in 1915 William James Perry, professor of comparative religion at the university of Manchester advanced the view that the "megalith-builders" were looking for pearls and precious stones, which Smith adopted as well.

Smith did not believe that this spread of culture was necessarily connected to a certain race, in contrast to other diffusionists like the German prehistorian Gustaf Kossinna. While he saw a racial affinity between the Egyptians and the first agriculturalists of southern Europe, both being of the "brown race", the spread of civilisation was mainly a spread of ideas, not of tribes or people.

The History of Hyperdiffusionism

In the age of Colonialism, hyperdiffusionism proved attractive, as it showed how missionaries, engineers and prospectors had spread civilisation all over the earth, as the colonial nations believed to do themselves.

Later on, hyperdiffusionism supplied a single, simple explanation of the complex process of neolithisation that made it attractive to amateur archaeologists and crackpots worldwide. It could be used to retain an Eurocentric view on history in the face of increasing evidence for impressive autochthonous development, for example in Zimbabwe (Great Zimbabwe), Polynesia (Easter Island) and Micronesia (Nan Madol on the island of Pohnpei).

We believe today that the megalithic graves of Britain, Ireland, France, Portugal, The Netherlands, Denmark, northern Germany, and Poland are much earlier than the Egyptian pyramids, while the Mesoamerican pyramids are much later and securely based in a local development.

Private Life

G. E. Smiths father had migrated to New South Wales from London. He had attended a workingman's college under John Ruskin and later became teacher and headmaster in Grafton, New South Wales. Grafton's older brother S. H. Smith was Director of Education in New South Wales, his younger brother S. A. Smith acting professor for anatomy at the university of Sydney.

G. E. Smith married Kathleen Macredie in 1902. During his time in London, he lived in Hampstead, Gower street, and at Regent's park. During his London years, he became a friend of Dr. W. H. R. Rivers. Smith's youngest son Steven Smith died in an accident in 1936. After his wife had been hurt in an accident in the same year, he spent his final year in a nursing home.


Warren Dawson's list includes 434 publications. Among the most important are:

  • The Natural Subdivision of the Cerebral Hemisphere (1901).
  • The Primary Subdivisions of the Mammalian Cerebellum (1902).
  • The Ancient Egyptians and the origin of Civilization (London/New York, Harper & Brother 1911).
  • Catalogue of the Royal Mummies in the Museum of Cairo (Cairo 1912).
  • On the Significance of the geographical distribution of Mummification - a study of the migrations of peoples and the spread of certain customs and beliefs (1916).
  • The Evolution of the Dragon (1919).
  • Tutankhamen and the Discovery of his Tomb (1923).
  • Evolution of Man: Essays (1924, 2nd edition 1927).
  • Human History (1930).
  • The Diffusion of Culture (London, Watts 1933).


  • A. P. Elkin/N. W. G. Macintosh, Grafton Elliot Smith, The Man and his Work (Sydney University Press 1974).
  • W. R. Dawson, Sir Grafton Elliot Smith: a Biographical Record by his Colleagues (London, Cape 1938).

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