Independent Invention & Cultural Diffusion

Edward Tylor – author of the first anthropology textbook, Oxford professor, and “armchair anthropologist” – asked how similarities between cultures could be explained when the cultures in question came from different regions.[1] To answer his own question, Tylor came up with two theories that could do so; ‘independent invention’ and ‘cultural diffusion.’[2]

Independent invention explains cultural parallels by saying that when humans, regardless of their cultural or geographical origins, are faced with a similar set of circumstances they will come up with comparable solutions.[3]  Tylor called this the “psychic unity of mankind.”[4] The overall concept runs along the lines of the cliché ‘great minds think alike.’ (Thank goodness they also think differently though, or life would be very boring.) When explaining independent invention Tylor used the example of stone tools including the “knife, saw, scraper, awl, needle, spear and arrowhead”[5] to make his point. (pun intended)

The other side of the coin is cultural diffusion.  The cultural diffusion theory believes that while independent invention can account for some of the similarities cultures share, the majority of them are the result of different ideas, religions, languages, myths, traditions, and other aspects of culture being passed from one group of people to the next like germs during flu season.  One example that I can think of off the top of my head is the Romans.  Their mythology is almost the same as the Greeks, but with different names.  The Romans had a vast empire, and wouldn’t you know it; they left behind variants of their language which we now group together and call the “Romance Languages.”

A good example of both theories at work can be found in the Nova documentary I watched recently in my North American Archaeology class.  One of the main focuses of the program was the “Clovis Point” that North America is known for.  As Tylor himself noted, projectile points are something that has been used across most cultures.  What makes the ‘Clovis Point’ an ‘independent invention’ is how it is unique to North America, and was, therefore, most likely invented here.[6]

The Clovis point itself originated at the Gault Site in central Texas.[7]  There is a huge deposit of chert there that the people of the time used to make stone tools.[8]  What makes the Clovis point so interesting from the cultural diffusion point of view is how far from ‘home’ at the Gault Site the Clovis point traveled.  What really stuck out to me when connecting the reading from our Anthropological Theory class to the video from my North American Archaeology class together was something the narrator said.

“There’s even evidence of trade networks between Clovis people at different sites across the continent. It’s not uncommon to find Clovis points hundreds of miles from the source of the original rock. And different bands of Clovis people probably traded more than just tools; they may have been exchanging potential spouses.”[9]

So in conclusion… I found Tylor’s theories of independent invention and cultural diffusion super interesting.



Engaging Anthropological Theory: A Social and Political History. Moberg, Mark. Published in 2013.


[1] Moberg, p. 118

[2] Moberg, p. 119

[3] Moberg, p. 119

[4] Moberg, p. 120

[5] Moberg, p. 119

[6] NOVA transcript

[7] NOVA transcript

[8] NOVA transcript

[9] NOVA transcript

4 thoughts on “Independent Invention & Cultural Diffusion

  1. That documentary was super interesting! I’m always relating things I learn in theory to things I learn in Dr. Bob’s class and I didn’t even think about connecting the Clovis points and diffusion. Tylor’s theories are one of my favorites so far because both cultural diffusion and independent invention actually relate to so many things in our every day lives. America is the great “melting pot” after all, and I think Tylor’s diffusion really suits North American archaeology.

  2. That’s interesting! It’s been a long time since I studied anything having to do with Clovis Points (other than brief mentions in ANTH 100), but I do recall that it was just assumed that Clovis Points were a marker of a population. You had people who used/ made Clovis points, and they carried that technology with them, and where you found the points, those were the people. But, of course, we know perfectly well that ideas diffuse – that’s the core of human relations, we trade, we exchange, we learn from each other!
    We’ll see more of this discussion when we get to Boas!
    And for those who don’t know much about Clovis points, here’s an article for you: and

  3. You’re post was an interesting one. I especially liked the quote at the very end that you used. We just recently watched the video about the invention of the Clovis and how it may have originated. I do not think that during that time period of the clovis, that it was uncommon to trade. In fact, I believe trading occurred frequently when other people would run in to one another. They possibly settled for a day or two to rest and they would rest together. Building a small network maybe when it comes to trading. (Of course! That is just me theorizing a possibility to how they functioned.) Us a society today, go to school and learn from teachers, but they also learn from their students. When people would run in to each other while moving around, I do not think it is far fetched they interacted with trading and teaching each other new skills to survive and make life easier for themselves. We wouldn’t have become so advanced as humans without exchanging information, tips and tricks to survival; it had to have started some where and at some point.

  4. I like how you saw the connection between what we were learning in theory to other classes. I often am seeing connections from all of my classes even across discipline and I believe that it helps us learn things more easily. The trading of ideas and goods especially during prehistory are very fascinating to learn about and see how they left a lasting impression on how cultures have developed across the globe.

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