Sue Young Histories

Louis Laurent Gabriel de Mortillet 1821 – 1898

April 09, 2009

Louis Laurent Gabriel de Mortillet 1821 – 1898 was a revolutionary French anthropologist, who was the first person to organise our prehistory into epochs, realising that older layers of geology and the specimens they contained were the more primitive forms of species found in newer, younger geological layers.

Gabriel de Mortillet presided over the foundation of the Societe d’anthropologie in 1872, and he was a friend of Paul Ferdinand Gachet.

French archaeologist Gabriel de Mortillet was born in Meylan, France on August 29, 1821. An intellectual thinker by birth, with a great love for science and components of the earth, Mortillet was destined for a bright future. In Paris at the Conservatoire des arts et metiers, Mortillet studied geology and engineering until 1848.

At this time, revolution swept through France, and a still young Mortillet was forced to leave his home country for his political stance. Mortillet fled to Switzerland and Italy, where he worked on railroad projects, using his geology and engineering skills. While in Switzerland, he made geological surveys and studies of the mountains. These studies were put into text in 1858 in Geologie et mineralogie Le la Savoie, or Geology and Minerology of Savoie.

Around this time, Mortillet began consorting with Eduoard Desor, a Swiss geologist. Mortillet and Eduoard Desor began work at a site at Lake Varese, Italy. It is here where they made the discovery of a Neolithic settlement.

In the early part of the 1860’s, Mortillet became editor of Revue scientifique italienne, a Turin journal. Later, this journal was combined with two others to create L’Anthropologie.

Mortillet returned to Paris in 1864. When he returned, he created his own journal, Materiaux pour l’histoire positve et philosophie de l’homme.

In 1868, he began work at the Museum of National Antiquities. In 1872, his editor status at his now 8 year old Paris journal came to an end. His labors at the Museum of National Antiquities became too great for him to keep up work on the journal. Emile Cartailhac was given editorship.

In 1876, Mortillet became a Professor of Prehistoric Anthropology at the School of Anthropology in Paris. He remained a Professor there until his death on September 25, 1898.

Aside from anthropological studies, Mortillet led a very active political career. He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies, in Paris, where he represented the working class. His political career was often controversial with his strong, out of the main stream, ideas. He often used evolution as a stepping stone to preach his political views.

Mortillet is best known for developing a chronological classification system of the prehistoric cultural development of man. Based on the idea that older specimens of man were more primitive structurally and culturally, he created a ladder like model of the evolution of man. This model was the basis for the idea of linear evolution of men. This classification system was further detailed in 1882, in Le Prehistorique: antiquite de l’homme, or The Prehistoric: Man’s Antiquity. His classification system continued to be the basis for anthropological classification into the 1900’s.

Gabriel de Mortillet was educated at the Jesuit college of Chambéry and at the Paris Conservatoire. Becoming in 1847 proprietor of La Revue independante, he was implicated in the Revolution of 1848 and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.

He fled the country and during the next fifteen years lived abroad, chiefly in Italy. In 1858 he turned his attention to ethnological research, making a special study of the Swiss lake dwellings.

He returned to Paris in 1864, and soon afterwards was appointed curator of the museum at St Germain. Mortillet used artifact types to distinguish periods and named them after sites (Chelléenne, Moustérienne, Solutréenne, Magdalénienne, Robenhausienne). He believed that they were universal stages; i.e. unilineal evolution.

He became mayor of the town, and in 1885 he was elected deputy for Seine et Oise. He had meantime founded a review, Matériaux pour l’histoire positive et philosophique de l’homme, and in conjunction with Paul Broca assisted to found the French School of Anthropology. He died at St Germain en Laye on the 25th of September 1898.


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