ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

Diffusion: a reappraisal of the concept
Location Arch & Anth LT2
Date and Time 9th April, 2009 at 09:30


Short Abstract

This panel aims to spark off a discussion about the concept of diffusion and its potential for cross-disciplinary dialogue between anthropology and archaeology. Participants should consider the historical background of diffusion in the two disciplines, as well as more theoretical issues.

Long Abstract

Diffusion has often been opposed to independent invention in the explanation of cultural change, which perhaps helps to explain its dismissal. Nevertheless, a renewed interest in diffusionary explanations has become apparent, particularly in archaeology; now, diffusion and independent invention can be seen to be two facets of the same issue. Exploring the significance of these developments we invite reconsideration of famous historical episodes, including Boas' critique of social evolutionism, the debate between Smith and Malinowski, and the transition from Culture-history to Marxism in Childe's writings, which paved the way for Processual archaeology. This should lead us to a more general discussion of the concept of diffusion, giving particular attention to the distinction between "demic" and "cultural" diffusions (Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza 1984). It is also worth exploring the distinction between the diffusion of techniques and symbolic ideas, which may imply different practices of social embodiment. Key to our debate is whether diffusion is only relevant to specific shifts, for example the spread of farming, or whether it can be used in larger explanatory frameworks (eg. world systems). All papers that consider these, and related issues are warmly welcome.

Discussant: Chris Hann

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The 'fiesta del tumini'. The power of money and cattle within the traditional life of the Huichol Mexican Indians

Author: Frédéric Saumade (Université de Provence)


Each year at the end of november, the Huichol Mexican Indians of San Andrés Cohamiata Tatei Kie celebrate their « patronal » feast in which they use to imitate their Mestizo-ranchers neighbors, culturally closer to the Spaniard pattern and economically more powerful. The Indians are organizing dancing sessions, election of a queen and princesses, and a rodeo. Their aim is to attract the Mestizos (even to force them if they are regional political characters obliged by the necessity of prestige) to come at the feast and to spend money as much as they can, paying fees to participate at the rodeo (as cowboys) and other manifestations. That money, considered as a « sacra » (tumini, from the old Spanish money tomin, is the vernacular word), is blessed by a shaman, because it will allow to celebrate, on the following year, the expensive traditional holy feasts of the Indians, which include many sacrifices of cattle.

This paper proposes to analyze the role of money and cattle - two important patterns of western-hispanic civilization adopted by the Huichols - in the configuration of the feast and, more generally, in the Indian society. It should demonstrate that the adoption of the western pattern does not means "acculturation" but, on the contrary, an adaptation-transformation process which allows Indian society to follow its own path of culture and ritual practices. Thus, it renews the debate, while ago opened by the boasian academy, on the reactivity of a local culture when it has to deal with contact.

Hotspots of transmission: Selimpaşa, Kanlıgeçit, Gulubovo and the lifting of complexity in Early Bronze Age Southeast Europe

Author: Volker Heyd


While the first half of the 3rd millennium BC in the southeast of Europe is still characterised by a - comparatively - low level of social and economic complexity and the dominance of pastoral tribes of a north-Pontic origin, the period between 2500 and 2200 BCE sees a real explosion in complexity and the inclusion of the Balkans and the Eastern and Central Mediterranean in a much wider network now dominated by exchange, trade, colonies, urbanism, and new forms of prestige and status expression.

Although prehistoric archaeology is still struggling here with its own inherent problem, an accurate chronological resolution, the paper tries to demonstrate that nor simple mechanisms of diffusion of information, ideas and goods are here at work, nor the models of World-System-Theories can be easily applied, but that is existing a much more complicated interference of ideological peripheries and traditional cultural boundaries, of acculturation processes, and seemingly contemporary different levels of complexity in the same region. It is exactly in this unstable contact zone that some sites obviously act as hotspots of transmission for these new achievements.

Models of export-led development and diffusion: the case of the export processing zone

Author: Patrick Neveling (SOAS, University of London)


The world's first Export Processing Zone, founded in Puerto Rico in 1947, triggered the dominant model for southern countries export-led development and industrialisation. For 2007 the International Labour Organisation listed more than 3500 EPZs or EPZ like zones worldwide employing more than 60 million workers. In the 1970s, when EPZs were comparatively analysed in Fröbels theory of the New International Division of Labour, their number, the amount of employment and therefore the impact of these zones on the capitalist world economy was still limited, whereas today their impact is much more substantial. At the same time, zones in Taiwan, Ireland and other places exist for more than thirty years and thus, particular zones have particular histories.

The paper analyses EPZs as a global institution central to the project of modernisation. Applying theories of diffusion, imperialism and globalisation to the histories of zones in Mauritius, Mexico, and China, it is suggested that EPZs offer an entry point for an archaeology of 20th century global capitalism. Secondly, as investors, workers, ideas and imaginations of relations of production have moved between the zones and institutions such as the World Export Processing Zones Association have been actively engaged in spreading information and technologies. From a theoretical perspective thus, a picture emerges that validates the concept of informal imperialism as a form of diffusion of innovation beyond cultural centres, but within a system of unequal distribution of power in the capitalist world economy.

The spread of farming as a major 'episode' of diffusion: a case study from Southeast Europe

Author: Maxime Brami


Archaeology provides the opportunity to study major shifts in Human history. One such shift is the so-called 'Agricultural Revolution' or Neolithization, characterized in fact by two distinct sets of processes: the development of farming and herding practices in several centres of the Near and Middle East, and the subsequent introduction of these practices to other regions, including Europe.

This paper focuses on the spread of the Neolithic to Southeast Europe, giving particular reference to the relationship between Western Turkey and Greece in the mid-7th Millennium BC. What strikes in this case-study is the seemingly instantaneous adoption of farming in the two regions with little or no resistance and limited adaptation.

Contrarily to the models of acculturation and adoption-'reinvention' usually discussed in anthropology, the main driving force for the Neolithization of Greece seems to be 'Demic' diffusion, that is to say migrations of people from Anatolia and the Near East carrying with them the full Neolithic package (architecture, subsistence strategies, ceramic technology, figurines, etc.). It is argued that this geographical 're-location' of culture is somewhat unique.