Thursday, November 12, 2009

Diffusionistic Fantasies I

One of the most persistent mythological ideas concerning the development of civilization in the Americas is the notion that the pre-Columbian civilizations of Americas were the result of the diffusion of cultural traits from the Old World to the New World.

In other words that civilization in the New World was the result of the diffusion of cultural traits from the Old World to the New World.

Now this idea was fairly popular in the late Nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and has since declined considerably in popularity. However it still has many adherents the great majority of whom are not experts in the Civilizations in question or even terribly knowledgeable or experts who just like thumb their noses at the “orthodox establishment”.1

Now one of the most persistent characteristic’s of this type of thinking is a pervasive inability to believe that the Peoples of the New World could have developed civilization on their own.2 Thus the accomplishments of the peoples of the New World is nothing more than them borrowing from the peoples of the Old World.3 Part of this approach is the infamous “White God” mythos which is to put it politely a total crock.4

Now this attitude is worth exploring in greater detail elsewhere but her I will examine just one example of diffusionistic reasoning. The example of Pyramids. It is a common trope in Diffusion literature.

The idea is that the peoples of the Americas got the idea of pyramids from the Old World; most commonly they were alleged to be copying the pyramids of Egypt.5

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

Here is where nomenclature helps confuse the issue. Simply calling two things by the same name does not prove that the two things are the same thing. For example we have wolves in the Old World & North America and on the island of Tasmania there used to exist, the now extinct, Tasmanian wolf. The fact is the Tasmanian wolf is not a wolf at all, but a marsupial and aside from being a mammal is not related to wolves at all, which are placental mammals.6 Thus calling something the same thing as something else does not prove that they are identical or that there is any sort of relationship between them. In the case of the Tasmanian wolf, they certainly look dog like, but are about as close to dogs as is the Spiny Anteater or Platypus.

Tasmanian Wolves

In the case of the Pyramids it is the same the fact that pyramids in Egypt and Mexico / Peru look alike does not prove that they are linked in any way. In order to link the two items one must do a comparison and this involves discussing that they were made of and how they were made.

Egyptian pyramids like the Great pyramid at Giza were largely built as tombs for the Pharaohs of Egypt. The era of the building of huge spectacular pyramids in Egypt lasted only a little less than a two centuries.7 This was the period of the 3rd and 4th dynasties.

It was during the reign of these Kings that Pyramid building reached its climax and then went into rapid decline. Ever since the unification of Egypt under the 1st dynasty Egyptians had been increasingly experimenting with stone work and with building stone monuments. By the beginning of the 3rd dynasty the Egyptians were fairly accomplished in this work.8

It was during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser of the 3rd dynasty that the first spectacular example of both pyramid construction and massive stone work was built. Djoser’s step pyramid and the mortuary complex around it are the first outstanding examples of truly massive stonework in human history. It is also a very well built series of constructions that are in quite good shape considering their age, (more 4500 years!).9

Step Pyramid of Djoser

In terms of construction the Step pyramid of Djoser was constructed of a series of stepped layers and the stone blocks constructing it were much smaller that the stone blocks later used.10 It was all part of the process by which the Egyptians were learning how to construct massive stone monuments. Later developments would add smooth sides to the pyramids and, enlarge the blocks of they were composed add granite covering stones and make them progressively larger.11

However towards the end of the 4th dynasty pyramids got drastically smaller. For example Menkaure’s pyramid is only about ¼ the size of the Great pyramid.12 Afterwards in the 5th and 6th dynasties pyramids were drastically smaller and far less finely constructed , being made largely of rubble and mud brick. It appears that Egyptians decided that the enormous cost of building such colossal and finely built edifices of stone was simply not worth it anymore.13

Now if the idea of Pyramids were brought to the Americas by people who were influenced by structures like the Great Pyramid one would expect pyramids in Mexico / Peru to resemble them. The problem is they do not.

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

Because of the very extensive time period over which pyramids were built in the Americas and the very wide diversity of cultures and places that built them there was, not surprisingly a great diversity of methods by which pyramids were constructed in the New World.

Pyramid, Tikal, Guatemala

There are some commonalities; however, one is that the pyramid had an earth / mud brick / rubble interior and that it was almost always used as a platform for a temple where sacred services / rituals would be performed. Also not infrequently there would be burials in the pyramids, but there chief purpose seemed to almost always have been platforms for temples.14

Pyramid at Sipan, Peru

Now one of the problems for the idea that someone had to bring over the idea of building pyramids from the Old World is that it is hard believe that it would not have independently occurred to someone that piling up earth etc, was a way to build an impressive monument. The fact is that the pyramid shape has a great deal of stability and strength and anyone who engages in trying to build impressive mounds will find out that the four sided shape is remarkably stable. Once you start building such monuments you would naturally come to this conclusion.15

Aside from differences between the purpose and techniques of building pyramids between Egyptian and New World pyramids there is the rather difficult task of explaining why New World inhabitants would seek to copy pyramids built during the great age of Pyramid building. As I said above the great age of Pyramid building lasted less than 200 years and then pyramid building went into rapid decline. After all pyramids built did no start being built in Mesoamerica until c. 1500 B.C.E., and they could not by any stretch of the imagination be compared to stone built Egyptian pyramids. If there was diffusion one would expect copies of the rather roughly stone, adobe, rubble cores with stone facings of pyramids of the Middle Kingdom.16

Of course by 1500 B.C.E., the Middle Kingdom was over and the New Kingdom had began and Egyptian Pharaohs from were being buried in rock cut tombs not pyramids. So just why would Egyptian visitors teach Mesoamericans to build pyramids when they were not building them anymore? That along with different purposes, and techniques of construction, aside make it highly dubious one as anything to do with the other.

As for South America, the same strictures apply as above with one important exception. The first pyramids in South America date to c. 3500-3000 B.C.E., at Notre Chico in Peru!17 This needless to say throws a severe monkey wrench into the idea that the natives of the New World got the idea for building pyramids from elsewhere.

Pyramids at Caral Peru, Notre Chico Culture

In fact it appears vastly more likely that if there was diffusion of pyramid building it would have been from Peru into Mesoamerica rather than from the Old World to either Mesoamerica or South America.

Now a much better idea, if you’re going to postulate diffusion is from Mesopotamia to the Americas, at least in terms of time. Mesopotamia developed into a complex society between 4000-3000 B.C.E., and during the same time period started erecting platforms, made of baked mud brick and rubble, for temples.18 This is about the same time period for the development of the pyramid temples of the Notre Chico civilization so it does fit the time period. Further Mesopotamian Ziggurats did have temples on their tops. However it does run into a whole series of problems. The four most important being.

Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq

1. If there was contact one would expect some artifacts from Mesopotamia in Peru and some artifacts from Peru in Mesopotamia. What one finds is nothing.19

2. The techniques of building are very different. For example Mesopotamian Ziggurats were built of baked mud brick with rubble cores. The pyramids of Notre Chico were built of earth and some rubble put into place in reed baskets.20

3. Mesopotamian Ziggurats don’t look a lot like Peruvian or Mexican pyramids.

4. The Mesopotamian Ziggurats did not attain the form that looks like pyramids until after Egyptian pyramids, (c. 500 years later). Which of course precludes them being inspirational for Notre Chico civilization.21

Now it is of interest to report that although the Mesopotamian Ziggurats look at lot more like New World pyramids than Egyptian pyramids they were never used as burial places, meanwhile New World pyramids were often used as burial places. Egyptian pyramids were always used as burial places and never used as platforms for temples.22

The dual use of so many New World pyramids would seem to indicate that some sort of independent development was going on.

Also one would expect that if there was contact between the New World and the Old world that one would find Old World artifacts in the New World and New World artifacts in the Old World in the relevant archaeological strata. One does not. With the exception of a slew of truly dubious alleged finds which have no providence and just show up with no background the finding of pre-Columbian Old World artifacts in the New world has been to all apparently zip. The same is true for New World finds in the Old World.23

Certainly if Egyptians influenced the development of Mexican Pyramids or in fact brought the idea, one would expect to find some Egyptian artifacts in the New World during this time period. In fact one does not find such artifacts. The same is true for Mesopotamian artifacts. They are absent.24

As said above it is absolutely incredible that anyone would think that it requires someone to bring the idea of building large impressive mounds to the New World. That such an idea would never occur to anyone except one lone genius in all of human history, from whom everybody took the idea. One just has to look at children playing in a playground to realize that piling up earth and sand is a very common idea.

Further the techniques of building Old World as against New World pyramids are different. To quote:

But those early Meso-American pyramids were made of earth and rubble covered with clay or plaster. The impressive stone structures that tourists travel to Mexico City, Yucatan, and Guatemala to see belong to the Classic Period (c. 300-900) or later. Even these later monuments were built with a core of earth and rubble and only an outer coating of limestone blocks. This building technique is quite different from those used to erect pyramids in Egypt or ziggurats in Mesopotamia.25

Also as indicated above the time periods are all screwed up. What with the Mesoamericans taking up pyramids after the Egyptians had abandoned them. And most decisively that the earliest pyramids on Earth seem to be Peruvian. If anyone spread the idea it would be from Peru to the rest of the world. Yes before the Egyptian pyramids before Babylonian Ziggurats Peru structures superficially like them were being built in Peru; in the coastal desert valleys.26

Of course some authors make foolish use of the tomb of Pacal in the Temple of the Inscriptions, (c. 670-700 C.E.) and say that it is a copy of a Pharaoh’s pyramid tomb in Egypt complete with sarcophagus. Unfortunately aside from missing the fact that why would a Mayan King imitate a tomb built 3000+ years earlier, there is the fact that Pacal’s tomb including the sarcophagus are only superficially similar. Also Pacal’s tomb is in many ways, including its huge stone sarcophagus unique in Mesoamerica, (so far). I further note not a trace of Egyptian iconography or artistic influence can be found in the tomb. (Ditto for Mesopotamian)27

Tomb of Pacal in The Temple of the Inscriptions,
Palenque, Mexico

In many respects the attitude that assumes that because something looks like something else they are linked assumes that:

A) Similarity proves contact / influence without regard to details.

B) Similarity cannot arise or is very unlikely to arise independently.

Both of those assumptions are dubious. Given that humans are biologically similar and have similar brains the idea that they just might come to similar solutions to similar problems should not be a surprise.

Why so many want to deny the possibility that the natives of the New World were largely responsible for the civilizations of the New World is in itself a very interesting question that says a great deal about those who propose it.

Akapana Pyramid, Tiwanku, Bolivia

1. See Williams, Stephen, Fantastic Archaeology, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1991, Steibings, William H., Ancient Astronauts Cosmic Collisions and Other Popular Theories About Man’s Past, Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY, 1984, Fagan, Garrett, Review of Voyages of the Pyramid Builders, from In the Hall of Maat Here.

2. See for example Heyerdahl, Thor, Early Man and The Ocean, Vintage Books, New York, 1978.

3. An all too common attitude see for example IBID, and such books as Marx, Robert F., & Marx, Jennifer, In Quest of the Great White Gods, Crown Publishing Group, New York, 1992.

4. See Marx above & Heyerdahl pp. 93-126. For an effective demolition of this nonsense see Davies, Nigel, Voyagers to the New World, William Morrow and Co. Inc., New York, 1979, pp. 125-140, Reece, Katherine, The Spanish Imposition, from In the Hall of Maat, Here, Townsend, Camilla, Burying the White Gods, American Historical Review, vol. 108 No. 3, June 2003, also at In the Hall of Maat, Here.

5. Heyerdahl, pp. 85-86.

6. Thylacine, Wikipedia Here.

7. Edwards, I. E. S., The Pyramids of Egypt, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1961, p. 297. (2700 – 2500 B.C.E.)

8. Rice, Michael, Egypt’s Making, Routledge, London, 1990, pp. 169-198.

9. IBID, Mendelssohn, Kurt, The Riddle of the Pyramids, Sphere Books Ltd., London, 1974, pp. 45-54, Edwards, pp. 53-80.

10. IBID, Edwards.

11. IBID. pp. 90-115.

12. Mendelssohn, p. 48.

13. IBID, 127-131, Edwards, pp. 170-210.

14. Stiebings, pp. 120-125.

15. For an amusing demonstration about the strength of pyramid structures see Thomson, Devon, Stressed Out Structures, at Here. It turned out that a pyramid could handle c. 9 times the weight that caused other structures tested to collapse. See also Fagan.

16. Edwards, pp. 211-253.

17. Notre Chico at Wikipedia Here. see also Moseley, Michael E., The Maritime Foundations of Andean Civilization: An Evolving Hypothesis, From In The Hall of Maat Here.

18. Bertman, Stephen, Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 194-198.

19. Davies, pp. 9-10.

20. Bertman, pp. 194-198, Lost Pyramids of Caral at BBC Here

21. Stiebings, p. 121.

22. Stiebings, pp. 120-125, Feder, Kenneth L., Frauds, Myths and Mysteries, Mayfield Pub. Co., Mountain View CA., 1999, pp. 172-175.

23. See Note 19.

24. IBID.

25. Stiebing, p. 124.

26. Footnote 17.

27. Schele, Linda & Mathews, Peter, The Code of Kings, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1998, pp. 95-132.

Pierre Cloutier


  1. I totally agree with this post.

    I really dislike when some people forcefully try to connect Middle Eastern cultures to the New World ones, not to mention when those same guys are talking about "ancient astronauts" or with new age beliefs.

    May I take this post, translate it and post it on my site? I shall credit you!

    Greetings from Guatemala.

  2. If you want to translate and post this post go ahead. I am glad you found it useful. I have written a whole series of posts about diffusion and related matters feel free to translate and post them also.

    All the best.