Grafton Elliot Smith

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Grafton Elliot Smith
Grafton Elliot Smith.jpg
Grafton Elliot Smith
Born (1871-08-15)15 August 1871
Grafton, New South Wales
Died 1 January 1937(1937-01-01) (aged 65)
Broadstairs, Kent, England
Residence United Kingdom
Nationality Australia
Fields Anatomy
Alma mater University of Sydney, University of Cambridge
Notable awards Royal Medal (1912)
Fellow of the Royal Society

Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, FRS[1] FRCP (15 August 1871 – 1 January 1937) was an Australian-British anatomist and a proponent of the hyperdiffusionist view of prehistory.

Professional career[edit]

Smith was born in Grafton, New South Wales. He attended Sydney Boys High School,[2] 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 received a travelling scholarship and went up to St John's College, Cambridge, graduating BA in 1896.[3] Afterwards he catalogued the human brain-collection of the British Museum. From 1900 to 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 to 1919 he was Professor in anatomy in Manchester, 1919–1937 he held the chair of Anatomy at the University College London. He was elected President of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland for 1924 to 1927.[4] 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.[5] 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 of the jumping shrew-type
  2. vision-dominated animals with an expanded cortex of tree-shrew-type
  3. acutely visioned, manually dexterous mammals of tarsius-type
  4. monkeys
  5. anthropoids using their hands to use and produce tools

Honours and awards[edit]

He was decorated by the Khedive of Egypt, Abbas Hilmy in 1909. He became Fellow of the Royal Society in 1907,[1] FRCP, cross of the French Legion of Honour, and was knighted 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 1936 the Huxley Memorial Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

European hypothesis[edit]

British anthropologists Arthur Keith and Grafton Elliot Smith both supported the European origin of humankind as opposed to models of Asian and African origin.[6] In several of his works, Smith argued that Europe was the cradle of humanity, identifying a European Mediterranean race as the occupants of the original home of modern humans. His cradle was large, as he claimed the Mediterranean race had occupied the Levant, Egypt and western Europe, including the British isles. He especially linked the Mediterranean race to the civilization of Egypt. Smith's arguments later became known as his theory of diffusionism.[7] According to Smith and William James Perry, Egypt was the source of all cultural innovations and the ultimate source of human civilization.[8]

According to Smith "Man did not become truly erect until his brain had developed in a very particular way to make it possible for him to use his hands"; this line of reasoning reinforced the European origin of human which both Smith and Arthur Keith supported as the mostly large brained specimens such as the Cro-magnon had been found in Europe.[9]


The term 'hyperdiffusionism' seems to have been coined by the British archaeologist Glyn Daniel in his book The Idea of Prehistory (1962) with a somewhat derogatory intention. It was intended to represent extremes of diffusionism, a theme popular in early 20th century archaeology that itself has been subject to criticism. 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 concept of hyperdiffusionism is now referred to by more neutral terms (when referring to the Americas) such as Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact.

Smith interpreted a small carving detail in Copán stela B as an elephant, an animal unknown in the New World. A. P. Maudslay had described the detail as being a stylized tapir. Smith argued that the carving shows an elephant with a mahout atop it. He went on to point out many Asian features in the sculpture in his book Elephants and ethnologists (1924).[10]


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)."

Cultural diffusion map from Egypt by Grafton Elliot Smith (1929).

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. Wittfogel's hydraulic hypothesis). Later on, the leading engineer became a sacred king (cf. Henri 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.

However, in The Ancient Egyptians and their Influence Upon the Civilization of Europe, written in 1911, he clearly demonstrates a steep rise in "Asiatic traits (Armenoid, Alpine, Celtic)," within the Egyptian aristocracy, to Dynastic Egypt itself (amongst other pre-historical phenomena).


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 they were doing themselves.

Later on, hyperdiffusionism supplied a single, simple explanation of the complex process of neolithisation that made it attractive to amateur archaeologists worldwide. It could be used to retain a 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).

At the present time, it is widely believed 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[edit]

G. E. Smith's 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. His older brother (S. H. Smith) was Director of Education in New South Wales; his younger brother (S. A. Smith) was Acting Professor of 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, Stephen Smith, died in an accident in 1936 and G. E Smith spent his final year in a nursing home in London, where he died.


Warren Dawson's list of Smith's publications 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). (Project Gutenberg copy of book) (Hathitrust copy) (at
  • 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).
  • Elephants and Ethnologists (1924).
  • Serle, Percival (1949). "Smith, Grafton Elliot". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. 
  • 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).


  1. ^ a b Wilson, J. T. (1938). "Sir Grafton Elliot Smith. 1871-1937". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 2 (6): 322–326. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1938.0014. 
  2. ^ Order of the British Empire.
  3. ^
  4. ^ "The Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland – Presidents of the Society" (PDF). The Anatomical Society. Retrieved 21 October 2012. 
  5. ^ Macmillan, Malcolm (2009). "Evolution and the neurosciences down-under". Journal of the history of the neurosciences (England) 18 (2): 150–96. doi:10.1080/09647040701662377. PMID 19367486. 
  6. ^ Henke, Winfriend and Hardt, Thorolf (2007) Handbook of paleoanthropology, Vol. 1. Springer. ISBN 978-3-540-32474-4 p. 31
  7. ^ Yoffee, Norman and Sherratt, Andrew (1993) Archeological theory, who sets the agenda? Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521449588. p. 47
  8. ^ Shaw, Ian (2002) A Dictionary of Archaeology. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 0631235833 p. 200
  9. ^ Corbey, Raymond and Roebroeks, Wil (2001) Studying human origins, disciplinary history and epistemology. Amsterdam University Press. ISBN 9053564640 p. 51
  10. ^ Yetts, W. Perceval (1924). "Elephants and Maya Art". The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 45 (261): 262–265, 268–269. JSTOR 862358. 

External links[edit]

Media related to Grafton Elliot Smith at Wikimedia Commons

Academic offices
Preceded by
J. B. S. Haldane
Fullerian Professor of Physiology
Succeeded by
Edward Mellanby