Ancient & Contemporary Culture Hearths

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How do some ideas become so important that they can change the world? In this lesson, we'll look at this question from the perspective of culture hearths, and see what role they've played in diffusing ideas around the globe.

Culture Hearths

Campfires (or fireplaces) offer the chance to relax around an open flame with people and talk. The hearth (a fireplace or stove) has historically been an important focal point of social interaction in human societies.

Humans sit around a fire and share ideas. This simply truth can be applied to small groups, but the idea is also relevant on a larger scale too. In the social sciences and humanities, we call the broad sharing and distributing of information cultural diffusion.

Basically, one culture develops an idea, and that idea is diffused or transmitted into a new culture, becoming an integral part of their society as well. And where do these ideas come from? Culture hearths, which are a center of innovation or invention, where new ideas are developed and then transmitted into other cultures.

Culture hearths have major impacts on their surrounding regions, and in some cases, the entire world.

Ancient Culture Hearths

The concept of cultural diffusion is as old as human societies themselves. Even way back in the Stone Age we see a new stone tool introduced in one region that then spreads across the continent. Culture hearths are difficult to define in nomadic societies however (some think that stone quarries for tools were the greatest places of innovation and idea exchange), so let's jump a little forward in time.

In the late Stone Age, human societies developed agriculture and started developing permanent, non-mobile civilizations. Many of those villages turned into larger cities and became some of the first true culture hearths.

In the Americas, the Valley of Mexico and Andes Mountains were culture hearths for civilizations across the hemisphere, introducing large-scale architecture, systems of law, philosophy, and astronomy.

Some innovations of these cultures are very much still with us today. Potatoes and squash were first domesticated in Peru, and corn and beans were first domesticated in Mexico.

Corn is an example of a product that originated in the culture hearth of Mexico, and was diffused around the world
corn

In Afro-Eurasia, major culture hearths included:

  • the Nile Valley of Egypt,
  • Mesopotamia of West Asia
  • the Indus River and Ganges River Valleys of India,
  • the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers of China

These were the great epicenters of ancient innovation.

Writing was developed in Mesopotamia and the Yellow River, spreading out from there. Systems of law that form the basis of modern legal codes were established in these areas, as were the basic tenets of architecture, agriculture and social behavior that came to define entire continents.

Historic Culture Hearths

These were the most important culture hearths of the ancient world, where the very concept of settled, urban civilization was developed. However, other regions could become culture hearths for other reasons.

Food and Art

Food is an obvious example of a product spreading into other cultures. If you've ever enjoyed rice, thank the culture hearth of China; olives, wines, or wheat, thank the Levant and the Mediterranean basin; coffee, thank Ethiopia.

However, we also see this in art and architecture. The ancient Greeks developed ideas about architecture that were diffused across all of Europe. Italians in the Renaissance developed realistic painting techniques that were diffused across the world and reshaped attitudes about art. Chinese artists invented the concept of printing, which diffused across Eurasia over the Silk Roads.

Religion

Another major sort of culture hearth we see throughout history is the epicenter of a major religion. Religious culture hearths represent the origin of religious beliefs, and a central place in how those beliefs are transmitted around the world.

The Levant of West Asia is one such place, being a culture hearth that spawned Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rome later became another culture hearth for Christianity, while Mecca and Medina became culture hearths for Islam.

India contains culture hearths for Hinduism and Buddhism, two major religions that have had major impacts around the globe. Even the Mormon faith has its own culture hearth, based around Utah in the American West.

Central India was a culture hearth for Buddhism
buddhist spread

Modern Culture Hearths

So, are culture hearths things of the past? Not at all. In the modern world, culture hearths tend to be very large, industrialized cities that innovate in terms of technology and international trade.

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