Sir Grafton Elliot Smith

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Grafton Eliott Smith, 1871-1937.[1]


August 15, 1871, Grafton Elliot Smith was born to Stephen Sheldrick Smith and Mary Jane Evans in Grafton, New South Wales. His father was the principal at Grafton Public School in London, where Grafton attended grade school. In 1883, the Smiths moved to Sydney, Australia, where Grafton would continue his education at Darlington Public school. Being that his father had an scholastic career, there was an expectation of high academic achievement in the family[2]. Elliot showed great interest in science and mathematics, as this interest may have been sparked from his experience dissecting a shark at the age of 10[3]. During high school at Sydney Boys High School, he went to evening physiology classes taught by Thomas Anderson Stuart. Professor Stuart claimed that there was still massive amounts of information about the brain that had yet to be discovered, which also may have inspired Grafton's interest in studying the brain. Smith would go on to study medicine at the University of Sydney. He did extraordinarily well in his undergraduate studies and graduated in 1893 with a bachelor of medicine as well as a Ch.M- a master of surgery. He would then begin his residency at Prince Alfred Hospital, shortly before becoming an administrator in the physiology department at the University of Sydney. Smith interest in neuroanatomy developed further as he began to study the brain, specifically of non-placental mammals. He graduated in 1895 as an M.D, and received a gold medal for his research paper on the anatomy and histology of non-placental mammals[4].

Next, Grafton was seeking his PhD and took advantage of a travelling scholarship that the university was offering. He moved to England and became a research student at St. John's College in Cambridge. He published numerous papers about neuro-anatomy, which were recognized by st. John's, who ultimately elected him as a fellow of the college in 1899[2]. Following this accolade, he received an invitation to become the Chair of Anatomy in Cairo, at the Egyptian Government School of Medicine. He held this position until 1909 and married Kate Emily Macredie. During this decade, Grafton and colleagues, Fredrick Wood Jones, H.A. Harrison, and W.R. Dawson investigated countless mummies and the remains of human brains in Nubia. Smith provided insight to the medical society in egypt from his research of how certain diseases affected the brains of the bodies they studied. For this, he was elected Fellowship into the Royal Society in 1907[5].

Grafton would return to England in 1909 where he would occupy Chair of Anatomy in Manchester for the next decade. During this period, Smith created a hypothesis for diffusion and gave expert opinion on the skull involved in the piltdown discovery. He would be transferred to London to hold Chair of Anatomy, as he continued to work in hospitals, and did research on shellshock[3]. Travelling would continue as Smith would venture to America, Asia, and back to Australia to attend international meetings of anthropologists, where he would share his latest research. In the 1930s, Smith's health began to decline and he was experiencing strokes due to hypertension and diabetes. One of these strokes ended his life on January 1, 1937[5].

Controversial Theories

Egyptian Hyper Diffusionism

With such a strong interest in the human brain, Grafton was even more intrigued by the evolution of the human brain, and how this impacted human evolution, in general. He believed homsapians evolved from a Mediterranean, Nordic race, originating back to Egypt. Furthermore, he believed all culture stemmed from Egypt, which he discusses in "The Royal Mummies" (1912), The "Migrations of Early Culture" (1915), "The Ancient Egyptians" (1911), and "The Diffusion of Culture" (1933)[5]. He suspected that Egypt's influence extended to India, China, Japan, America, and the Pacific, by route of Egyptian designed ships. He even goes as far as asserting that America and China would not exist in the form they do today, if it weren't for the diffusion of Ancient Egyptian culture. In another work of literature, "The Ancient Egyptians and Their Influence Upon the Civilization of Europe" (1911), Smith goes in depth about the mechanics of this diffusion and stated that "Practices were only passed down between civilized individuals, in small numbers." The majority of Smith's works were reflective of his time he spent in Nubia, where he examined tens of thousands of mummies.

Egyptian Hyperdiffusionism.[6]

He credited the origination of European stone building back to Egypt, as well as sourcing other innovations in other continents back to ancient Egyptian culture. With the support of fellow British anthropologists W.J. Perry and W.H.R. Rivers, Smith would present his findings to the British Association for the Advancement of Science during annual conferences. In 1914, prior to one of these meetings, he was presented the mummy of a male from Darnley Island, off of the Australian mainland. The mummy showed signs of handling after death, which Grafton instantly credited to the Egyptian mummification process. Meanwhile, an expert anthropologist in the region, A.C. Haddon, had conflicting opinions but was ignored as Smith's reasoning received the most attention and credibility. In any case, this specific corpse, called The Torres Strait Mummy, was used by Smith to argue that mummies found across the globe could be traced back to Egypt. He believed that embalming a deceased individual was invented by the Egyptians and that any mummy, found anywhere, showing signs of being embalming, proved the diffusion of Egyptian culture. After looking at the mummification technique from the Torres strait Mummy, he concluded that the transferring of Egyptian practices and beliefs must've occured after the 9th century BCE[7].

Smith believes that the Mayans were sent from Egypt to South America, and that they were abandoned by their ancient Egyptian roots[8]. It is likely that he based this conclusion off of similarities between the two empires. The Mayans and Egyptians are both responsible for erecting massive pyramids, as well as other buildings that were advanced for their period such as housing structures, government buildings, and religious/traditional sites. Both societies had a level of isolation. The egyptians used the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile River, and surrounding deserts a protection against invaders. This independence may have been the source of why Smith believed that Egypt was so much further ahead than the rest of the world, as they were making cultural and technological advancements on their own. The Ancient Mayan region is much less understood than the Northeastern African region, but they too used the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the surrounding jungles to stay safe and thrive independently. The writing systems from the two cultures also may have convinced Grafton towards his hypothesis because the Mayans and the Egyptians used hieroglyphics to communicate and record history. This writing consists of pictures and symbols which represent words or ideas[9].

Piltdown Man

Smith was also involved in one of the largest hoaxes in scholastic history, the discovery of the Piltdown Man skull, in 1912, Sussex England. The discovery was made by Charles Dawson and had major importance because the skull appeared to have the mandible of a chimpanzee, providing excellent evidence and insight to human evolution. Dawson was only an amerature archaeologist and sought out expert opinions from respected archaeologists, paleontologists, and anthropologists. So, along with others like Sir Arthur Keith from the British museum, Grafton was consulted by Dawson. Grafton was asked to examine the Piltdown skull because he was specialist in the anatomical field, as his opinion on the matter would carry a large sum of weight. His opinion was expressed in agreement with the rest of the crew, as he verified the jaw discovered at the same site of the Piltdown Man skull, was that of a chimpanzee[10]. What made this discovery even more astonishing, was that since the cranium was said to be human, and the jaw was chimp, this would prove the legitimacy of the Brain-Centered Theory. This was a belief that the human lineage was very old, and that the brain region evolved first by expanding, and then the remainder of the body would evolve slowly after. In short, the Piltdown skull proved this theory because the cranium was human (more evolved) and the jaw was ape because it was evolving slower then the brain region. A finding of this magnitude would receive lots of attention and praise as no such evidence had been previously presented [11]. An interesting thing to note was that in his writings from the period about the discovery, he stated that all of his observations and findings were based on a plastic mold of the skull, rather than the actual skull[10].

Archaeological Evidence

Egyption Hyperdiffusion Theory

His assertion that hyperdiffusion of Egyptian culture occurred after the 9th century BCE immediately attracted critics. This was primarily because historical documentation identifies the period after the 9th century BCE as an era of thriving literacy. More and more people in this time were learning to read, write, and more importantly, record history. Some of this recorded history included descriptions of ancient Asian civilizations with information such as government structure and foreign relations, more specifically, material trading. The information in these records showed little to no cultural connection to Ancient Egypt[7]. Egypt is a material rich region, especially in gold[12]. This is a substance of interest to many civilizations, even more so in that era, and likely would have been traded to Asian societies if such relations existed between them and the Ancient Egyptians. To weaken this theory further, there are no records of Egyptian ships that ventured east that would be able extend their culture or specific mummification practices to Asian, Indian, or Australian civilizations[7].

When assessing his evidence for connections between the Mayans and the Ancient Egyptians, we can see inaccuracy in the majority of his concepts relating their architectural similarities, linguistics, and their respective religious cultures[9]. Beginning with the pyramids, their estimated construction timelines are far from contemporary. The Mayan pyramids were built around 100 BCE while, at that time, the Egyptian pyramids had already been standing for about 2000 years. Although the structures are both pyramid-looking, they serve completely different purposes. The Mayan pyramids were actually used as temples of worship for religious ceremonies, while the Egyptians built them strictly as tombs. For these reasons, the Egyptian pyramids are much more durable than the Mayans'. The Mayans built their pyramids with the intentions of reconstructing them in the future, but since the Egyptians were building them for burial chambers, they designed their pyramids to be able stand forever. The Egyptians believed the sarcophagus, which contained the deceased individual, was supposed to last for eternity, and needed a structure that was capable of surviving this timeline. As far as the relationships between the ancient Mayan and Egyptian languages, none exist other than that they both used hieroglyphics. The Egyptian hieroglyphics were written as long lines of symbols, and were crafted using paper, stones, and personal treasures. The mayan hieroglyphics were assembled in zig-zag patterns, and could not be properly understood if read in a straight line fashion, like the Egyptians'. Additionally, The Mayan hieroglyphics were almost always carved out of or into stone, unlike the variation of materials in which the Egyptians used [13].

Piltdown Discovery

Even with lingering doubts about the legitimacy of the Piltdown Man skull, it was still widely accepted and glorified up until the 1940's, when more accurate chemical analyses methods were introduced. These new methods were applied to the skull and jaw fragments by British Anthropologists Kenneth Oakley, Joseph Weiner, and Wilfred Le Gros Park. They used fluorine and nitrogen based dating techniques that confirmed the skull was approximately 500 years old, and the jaw was from an an orangutan and was only a couple of decades old. As if the time discrepancy between the fragments wasn't enough to disprove the discovery, there was also clear indication that the skull has been stained with potassium dichromate and iron to make it appear much older. Continuing, they also noticed that the teeth from the orangutan jaw had been filed down to resemble typical human teeth, and the jaw mandible itself was damaged at the locations where it would be attached to the skull. This was done to allow the reattachment of the jaw to be possible. Smith failed to recognize numerous flaws with the Piltdown skull including fragments from other skulls (and other species) as well as signs of manipulation like coating and filing of the bone[14]. It is unclear of who were the sole hoaxers in the discovery, especially since, altogether, there were dozens of individuals that confirmed the authenticity of the finding. Yet, it would be highly unlikely that Grafton was oblivious to the fraudulency occuring. He had studied thousands of independent fossils and mummies throughout his career and was internationally considered as one of the best anatomists in the world. It is not impossible for him to have missed signs of manipulations when he examined the skull, however he seemed to be covering for himself when he stated that his observations were based off of a replica mold of the skull, rather than the actual artifact. As for the brain-centered theory, this would be disproved. It is now believed that the human species is somewhat modern, and that the growth of the brain occurred much more recently than what the brain-centered theory predicted [11].


  1. Portrait of Sir Grafton Eliott Smith by F.W. Schmidt. Retrieved from
  2. 2.0 2.1 Wilson, James Thomas, 1936. "Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, 1871 - 1937" Obit. Not. Fell. R. Soc.2322–333” [1]
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, anatomist, archaeologist, educator, scientist" [2]
  4. Michael J. Blunt, 'Smith, Sir Grafton Elliot (1871–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1988.[3]
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Smith, G. E. (1923). Essays on the evolution of man. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Stocking, G. W. (1995). After Tylor: British social anthropology, 1888-1951. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. [4]
  6. Map of Hyperdiffusionism from Egypt, 1929. Retrieved from
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Derricourt, Robin. “The Australian Who Rewrote World History.” Inside Story, 4 Aug. 2017, [5]
  8. Feagans, C. (2016, December 8). "Hyper-diffusion in archaeology. Archaeology Review.[6].
  9. 9.0 9.1 Shneiderman, D. (2020, June 5). "Ancient Egyptian vs. Mayan culture." Synonym. [7]
  10. 10.0 10.1 Harter, Richard, 1996. "Piltdown Man, The Bogus Bones Caper" [8]
  11. 11.0 11.1 Gee, Henry. "Box of Bones 'Clinches' Identity of Piltdown Palaeontology Hoaxer," Nature 381 (23 May, 1996), pp. 262-262 [9]
  12. Schorsch, Deborah, January 2017. "PGold in Ancient Egypt" [10]
  13. Calhoun, C. (2012, January 9). "Egyptian and Mayan similarities-ginseng, religion, and hieroglyphics." Owlcation. [11]
  14. Szalay, J. (2016, September 30). "Piltdown Man: Infamous fake fossil. LiveScience. [12]