Once upon a time, a wooden raft washed up on the shore of Raroia Atoll carrying five Norwegians and a Swede. They’d left Callao in Peru just over three months previously and sailed the entire way on a raft made only of basic materials. One of those Norwegians was Thor Heyerdahl. An excellent navigator, he’d led the expedition in an attempt to show it was possible that the pre-Columbian cultures could have crossed the Pacific and settled in Polynesia, specifically Easter Island. Some time in the prehistory of the world, that voyage had been made. Those giant heads, the moai, had more in common with South American designs than other Polynesian artifacts, he thought.
Then there’s Grafton Elliott Smith, an anatomist and a specialist in the evolution of the brain over the history of mankind. He noted that, at the time he was working in the early 20th century, most specimens of Cro-magon skeletons had been found in Europe. Cro-magons were a large-brained human predecessor species. Larger brained than modern humans in fact. Because of the locations of the finds he hypothesised that civilization started in the Mediterranean area of Europe and spread outwards, particularly to Egypt and Mesopotamia. Arthur Keith, curator at the Huntarian Museum agreed with this and dismissed contrary evidence that was later unearthed. W.J. Perry, noted cultural anthropologist, corresponded with Grafton Elliott Smith but thought that megalithic culture spread from Egypt outwards.
On the other hand, Laurence Waddell, linguist and philologist, explorer and expert on Tibet was convinced that his translations of the Indus Valley seals was strong evidence that the ancient cultures we know of had their origin with Aryan Sumerian colonists. He constructed an entire chronology of how civilizations and their Kings descended from that original one. Charles Hapgood was convinced that Acambaro Figures and the Queen Maud Land interpretation of the Piri Reis Map indicated that there had been a catastrophic 15° shift in the Earth’s poles at the end of the last global ice age meaning that parts of Antarctica were not only ice free but home to a previously unknown civilization. 250 years before Hapgood, Antonio de León Pinelo was convinced that the Garden of Eden was located in Bolivia and all life had its origin there.
Hyperdiffusionism is the enticing theory that all civilization today has its root in a single, prehistoric civilization that is, more often then not, thought to have been far more advanced and refined that the cultures that followed. Typically it takes as its starting point an observation like Thor Heyerdhal’s that some set of buildings or artifacts in one region of the globe look very similar to those in a completely separate area many thousands of miles distant. Or perhaps some strange artifact is found that doesn’t seem to fit into existing theories about the development of the area. Those items or correlations need an explanation. The status quo of accepted knowledge must be wrong in some manner, and so the quest begins.
A single origin for mankind is a neat and tempting concept. Other theories seem harder to grasp. Multiple origins, parallel evolution of ideas, diffusion of cultures via trading routes and other contact between groups can seem less intuitive or overly complex. Hyperdiffusionism lends itself to a strong, simple narrative that is clear and somehow calming. Observing stepped pyramids in Bali and Columbia looking so similar inevitably brings unbidden images of maps to mind with lines being drawn from one location to the other. Just like the travel scenes from an Indiana Jones film. Those connections must be made, and they can be used to support other lines of thought. At the time many of the hyperdiffusionist theories were expounded – in the early 20th century – racist, nationalist and colonialist ideas were common and required justification. A good theory regarding the origins of man might lend weight to arguments that some peoples had more right to rule than others. Then there are the religious narratives many are raised with, such as the Genesis creation story that reflect this line of thought. There are myths like Atlantis or the Lost Continent of Mu and great lost civilizations of the past that fit too. Many familiar stores that some would seek to ground in fact.
The term hyperdiffusionism was coined somewhat later than when most of the theories were set forth. It was a derogatory term for those who would seek to extrapolate a theory from a few odd pieces of fantastic archaeology or pseudoarchaeology in isolation from all other pieces of evidence and the received wisdom of the archaeological community. They even ignore the evidence from other hypderdiffusionist champions and the ideas they brought to the table. This skeptical approach to hyperdiffusionism does group together a whole range of hypotheses from the wild to the plausible under the same umbrella, but does make the point that in seeking to explain the weird, you cannot discard the familiar. Yet the orthodox, more scientific approaches to explaining the spread of human cultures render the subject less exciting. Once explained and enmeshed in the network of accepted theory, what is left to hold the interest? Some want the thrill of new explanations for exotic finds while adding further mysteries on top of what was there before.
The quest is the centre of hyperdiffusionism. These are adventurers, voyagers and explorers. The oceans and space were two frontiers of exploration that were temporarily technologically beyond reach in the early 20th century. But the past could still be plumbed for fresh territory. The possibility of a Golden Age at the Dawn of Man promises discoveries galore and gives a handy goal for those determined to embark on their own personal grail-hunts for meaning. Their voyages create more stories to relate and consume the interest of readers.
As with other theoretical classifications, hyperdiffusionsts were mix of the maverick, the considered and the extreme. The interesting work of a few may be maligned with the extravagant straw clutching of others. But every so often, just occasionally, new evidence come to light that supports a theory. Recently the DNA of Easter Islanders has been tested and there is some evidence that it contains some sequences that would appear to be South American in origin. Thor Heyerdahl would be grinning.