intriguing question: independent invention or diffusion of ideas in the ancient world

intriguing question: independent invention or diffusion of ideas in the ancient world

What are the people like on the yonder shore?  Are they like us?  Are they so very different?


walking by waterway


An interesting item of note from the distant past is that not infrequently ideas and inventions would develop or appear at roughly the same time in many different cultures or societies, sometimes in societies separated by large distances.  What might explain this? There are 2 fairly obvious possibilities.  An idea or technological advance might be developed in one culture and then spread by diffusion (via trade, commerce, conquest, etc.) to other peoples in other areas.  Another possibility is that the idea or technological advance might be invented in more than one area with there being no interaction between the areas of separate development.  Arguments can be made for both these scenarios.

Consider agriculture, perhaps it would be more accurate to say horticulture.  Yes, this developed at different times in different places widely separated from each other.  Yet, what accounts for the separate development?  Diffusion of the ideas for plant cultivation cannot be ruled out.  But, neither can the possibility of different peoples independently coming to the practice of horticulture at different times be discarded.

People in the distant past may have moved about and had more interactions with neighboring groups perhaps more than we modern folks assume they did.  Transportation and communication were low tech in ancient times but these were not non-existent.  As well, the common factors in the experiences of humans in different environments across the globe could have played a significant role in spurring independent invention.

I think both independent invention and diffusion of ideas played a part in man’s development and growth over the millenia.  2 things are worth bearing in mind.  First, despite humans’ predilection for obsessing on differences between and among individuals and groups, the reality is that we humans have much more in common than we have differences.  The vast majority of humans who have ever lived were born with the same 5 senses, 2 legs, 2 arms, one head, etc.  We all, no matter where we live on the planet, experience night and day (even if these are seasonal as in the high latitudes) and seasonal changes.  We all have the physical need to eat and drink and for shelter to keep body and soul together.  We have so many common experiences because we have the same needs and limitations common to the human condition.  2.  Carl Jung referred to the collective unconscious and to archetypes.  It may be that at deeper levels of our minds we humans are able to tap into universal ideas.  Such a collective unconscious accessible to all, or to at least for many, could help to explain ideas appearing among groups of humans in widely separated parts of the globe.

If there is a moral to this story, it could be that the challenge for modern humans that must be faced and successfully met is to recognize, at long last, that we share a common humanity and we must constructively and peacefully resolve our various differences (disputes, antagonisms) if we, as a species, are to survive long on this planet.  How much true progress could be made if we chose to work together rather than against each other? One can only wonder and hope.

Copyright 2014 –

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