Meetings of People: Rivers & Diffusionism

W.H.R. Rivers was a key figure in the development of both psychology and anthropology in early twentieth-century Cambridge. Consequently, much of what is distinctive in the development of one discipline in this period relates directly to the other. Nevertheless, the pivotal event in Rivers’ anthropological career – his ‘conversion to diffusionism’ around 1911 – was not directly related to his psychological research.

Rivers announced his conversion in his 1911 Presidential Address to the Anthropology Section of the British Association. He explained that in writing up the results of  his 1908 expedition to Melanesia he had come to see that “the change I had traced was not a spontaneous evolution, but one which had taken place under the influence of the blending of peoples”. Quite why Rivers came to see social change in this new way has mystified modern scholars.

In this post I explain Rivers’ 1911 ‘conversion’. The explanation is extrapolated from several published articles (details below) and constitutes a digression from my series of posts on Rivers and psychology. Taking this digression, however, will allow us in later posts to pinpoint more accurately the place of psychology in the Cambridge moral sciences.

Behind Rivers’ ‘conversion’ are three decades in which the study of prehistory undermined the mid-Victorian model of organic social development. When Alfred Marshall engaged in intensive historical study in the early 1870s he absorbed from scholars such as Henry Maine and E.A. Freeman a story of the development of the Aryan village community into ancient city states and the nations of modern Europe. This model of social development was built upon the success of comparative philology earlier in the century, and was intended to complement the philologists’ story of an original Aryan folk, speaking one language and dwelling somewhere in Asia, branches of which had migrated both East and West, subsequently developing their language and social forms at different rates and in subtly different ways.

From the 1880s onward key elements of this model of prehistoric migration and social development were challenged by a new vision of prehistoric linguistic diffusion in which Aryan warriors (rather than migrating folk) were the key agents. Given a new North European home, bands of these warriors were taken to have conquered prehistoric societies from Britain to Persia and India, establishing themselves as ruling aristocracies and bequeathing their language to their conquered subjects.

The new model separated linguistic and ethnic development – as the revisionists of the 1880s put it, ‘language is no guide to race’. But the new model had no necessary implications for an organic model of social development.

For example, in his Early Age of Greece (1901), the Cambridge archaeologist William Ridgeway argued that the Achaean heroes described by Homer were really Germanic warriors who had recently come down from the North and conquered Mycenaean Greece. But Ridgeway was convinced that the distinctly Northern culture depicted in Homer did not long survive its new Aegean environment. Within a few generations, he insisted in this publication of 1901, the culture of the North had disappeared and ancient Greek society resumed its underlying evolutionary trajectory.

In the decade that followed publication of the Early Age of Greece, however, Ridgeway revised his conclusions somewhat. Specifically, he began to develop the argument (primarily in opposition to the theories of the so-called ‘Cambridge Ritualists’) that ancient Greek tragedy had developed by way of a fusion of Northern and Southern cultures – the culture of the invading warriors and the culture of the indigenous Aegean population. Specifically, in his Origin of Tragedy (1910), Ridgeway argued that the chorus that performs in the orchestra in classical tragedy derives from native funeral laments, while the dialogues of the actors derive from Northern traditions of celebrating the deeds of dead heroes through song and epic verse.

Ridgeway’s novel explanation of tragedy matters a great deal to us because he was the leading figure behind the establishment of anthropology in Edwardian Cambridge. In this endeavour he was helped by others, with Rivers playing an important role. But Ridgeway was the senior university member, whose prestige and authority and also untiring energy and enthusiasm carried the day.

And in just these years when Rivers was working with Ridgeway and others to establish Cambridge anthropology we find also the Anglo-Saxonist, H.M. Chadwick, giving lectures in anthropology that explained social change as a result of social encounter.

Chadwick’s 1907 study of The Origin of the English Nation invokes the social evolution of the North – from primitive matriarchy to patriarchy – as a key explanatory factor in the history of ancient English mythology. But Chadwick’s next book, The Heroic Age, published in 1912 and no doubt first delivered in the form of anthropology lectures in Edwardian Cambridge, turned to a different form of explanation.

Chadwick’s 1912 book argued that ‘heroic ages’ were social phenomena that arose out of specific kinds of social encounters. This model of social encounter was held to apply to both the Achaean invasion of Mycenaean Greece and the Teutonic destruction of the Roman Empire. Chadwick’s model goes like this: a simple agriculture society comes into contact with a great and wealthy civilization. The young men of the smaller society discover that better opportunities are to be found in mercenary service in the great civilization than following their fathers behind the plough. Over time the social order of the smaller society collapses – traditional forms of authority disappear as a warrior culture emerges in which young men give their loyalty to whatever captain they believe most likely to lead them to riches. Warrior bands set out and, inevitably, overrun and conquer the great civilization.

As Chadwick concluded his study, the characteristics of the Teutonic “Heroic Age owe their origin, not so much to the national movements which brought about the destruction of the Western Empire as to the long-standing relations between the two peoples”.

Once we locate Rivers as a fellow lecturer in anthropology, working closely with Ridgeway and Chadwick in the seven or eight years prior to World War One, then his ‘conversion’ is no longer in need of explanation. Far from experiencing a unique moment of grace, Rivers is seen as simply marching in step with his fellow students of anthropology in Cambridge.

Of course, neither Ridgeway nor Chadwick are recognized today as members of the tribe by modern anthropologists or even historians of anthropology. In some basic way this is besides the point; or rather, this merely serves to remind us that Edwardian anthropology might not be all that we expect it to be. But we can make a concession to anachronism by drawing out this concluding point: a story of Cambridge anthropology that encompasses the contributions of W.H.R. Rivers cannot be properly told without taking on board the wider history of scholarship in this period.

Image: Engraved print depicting Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, meeting with the Narragansett Indians (PD).


The Making of the English: English History, British Identity, Aryan Villages: 1870-1914‘, Journal of the History of Ideas, 75:4, 629-49, 2014

Squaring the Shield: William Ridgeway’s Two Models of Early Greece‘, History of European Ideas, 40:5, 693-713, 2014

‘The Tragedy of Cambridge Anthropology: Edwardian Historical Thought and the Contact of Peoples’, History of European Ideas, forthcoming.

2 thoughts on “Meetings of People: Rivers & Diffusionism

  1. Reblogged this on Ether Wave Propaganda and commented:

    Another stellar Grote Club post by Simon Cook- this time on W.H.R. Rivers and his ‘conversion to diffusionism’, explained through the decisive influence of the writings of H.M. Chadwick and those of the archaeologist William Ridgeway. Simon rightly contends that in order to explain anthropology at Cambridge c. 1910s we have to cast aside our anachronistic notions of anthropology as a modern discipline in order to admit the contributions of Chadwick and Ridgeway, whom by modern definitions of anthropology are not anthropologists at all


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