Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 August 2010
Those who think of cultural diffusionism as being long since dead in the academy would do well to look to biblical studies. Cultural diffusionism is based upon the concept of diffusion, or the transmission of features from one culture to another. Diffusionism, then, as one reference work puts it, “refers to any learned hypothesis that posits an exogenous origin for most elements of a specific culture or cultural subset.” Diffusionism as a mode of thinking flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and its main proponents “aimed at a comprehensive survey of the spread of cultural traits from the earliest times until today. They developed complex … classifications of ‘culture circles’ (Kulturkreise) and surveyed their possible dissemination from an original centre.’ That is, the hypothesis that most features of any given culture will have come from outside of the culture led to the idea of “culture areas,” wherein various ostensibly distinct groups in actuality share very similar cultural traits. This is because these traits, at some prehistoric or historic point, diffused outward from the place, or “centre,” where they originally developed, lending a similarity to the cultures, or subcultures, of one area. Yet, once these culture areas established themselves, further cultural changes could still arise through the diffusion of traits from one Kulturkreis to another.