Early migration and diffusion, and a global ecumene?

Prof. Stephen C. Jett

Decades ago, A.L. Kroeber redefined the ancient Greek concept of the Ecumene (oikoumene) or "civilized world" to mean "the total area reached by traceable diffusion influences from the main higher centers of Eurasia at which most new culture had up to then been produced." He took this Ecumene to comprise a zone extending from the Mediterranean through Southwest and Central Asia to India and China. I raise the question as to whether this concept might be extended to include the ancient high cultures of Meso- and South America. If it comes to be accepted that these areas were anciently part of a web of economic interaction and cultural diffusion (cf. contemporary World-Systems Theory), several theoretical questions are raised. The utility of the two hemispheres as supposed independent cases from which to generalize about cultural evolution largely vanishes. For the conventional paradigm of independence and uniformitarianism, I substitute a model of culture change that stresses historical contingency (cf. Chaos Theory). I bring into question the standard gradualist model of cultural evolution and normative cultural ecology, applying instead one of punctuated equilibria à la S. J. Gould. I posit intercultural contact as a precondition of major cultural elaboration, and propose that less culturally elaborated areas (if not environmentally severely constrained) largely reflect stasis in isolation.