Cultural diffusion – from East to West?

Stephen Oppenheimer in ‘Eden in the East: The drowned continent of Southeast Asia’ writes that the Universal Flood drowned the huge continental shelf of Southeast Asia’; and that this had caused a population dispersal which fertilised the Neolithic cultures of China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Eastern Mediterranean, thus creating the first civilisations.

Oppenheimer’s theory is that “ … the roots of the great flowering of civilisation in the fertile crescent of the Ancient Near East lay in the sinking shorelines of Southeast Asia. The Sumerians and Egyptians themselves wrote about the skilled wise men from the East, a fact often dismissed as the embellishment of a fertile imagination.”

Oppenheimer points out that the myths of the Sumerians, “with their religious connotations,” were “among the first written records in the third millennium BC;” and that “in the majority of cases the structure and content of the Mesopotamian myths show them to be derived from earlier Eastern sources;” and that “we may suppose that the direction of diffusion was East-to-West.” That claim must be equivalent to putting a cat into an aviary! If true, the dates of diffusion may be much earlier than 6,000 years ago.

He states as a ‘myth-type’ the parable of the ‘two warring brothers’ which had arisen in eastern Indonesia, and to have travelled with the Austronesian expansion along the north coast of New Guinea into the Southwest Pacific “at least 6,000 years ago.” As a most probable clash of cultures (eg. nomadism vs. agriculture), this parable (an example is that of Kulabob and Manup in eastern New Guinea) is reminiscent of Cain and Abel. Oppenheimer concludes “ … these myths antedate Genesis by several thousand years.

Other “shared Eurasian myths” include the Flood; the “watery creation and separation of Heaven and Earth;” the tree motif in the two-brother parable “derived from the Tree of Life;” and the Garden of Eden as a “fertile lost Paradise.” “The family of immortality myths may be the oldest of all, recalling the importance of ritual burial which goes back well before the end of the Ice Age.”

Significantly, Oppenheimer also says “My personal view is that although there was much technology transfer over a prolonged period, the most important new lessons from the East were … how to use hierarchy, politics, magic and religion to control other peoples’ labour.” What a claim! But he does remind us of “the stratified hierarchies still surviving in Austronesian traditional societies from Madagascar through Bali to Samoa;” and the retention of honorific titles in countries such as Bali and Samoa.

In the event, did European colonialism fail in teaching some of its ‘natives’ how to govern themselves in a democratic manner? Perhaps class-riven Britain and social rank-driven Europe were not then appropriate role models!