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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/February 1899/Sketch of Gabriel de Mortillet

PSM V54 D450 Gabriel de Mortillet.png


"THE Ecole d'Anthropologie feels with a profound emotion the loss of the eminent master, one of its glories, whose labors have contributed in so large a measure to honor and magnify it, and to extend and confirm its legitimate authority, and who had the exceedingly rare merit of constituting a science which by means of him has become a French science—that of prehistoric archæology." Such is the eminently fitting tribute spoken by the professors of the Paris École d'Anthropologie through their Revue Mensuelle to the memory of Gabriel de Mortillet.

Louis Laurent Gabriel de Mortillet was born at Meylan, Isère, France, August 29, 1821, and died September 25, 1898. He began his studies with the Jesuits at Chambéry, and continued them in Paris at the Museum of Natural History and at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. He was interested in the revolutionary movements of 1848; and in the insurrectionary demonstration of the 13th of June, 1849, which followed the presentation by Ledru Rollin, on the 11th, of a resolution of impeachment against President Louis Napoleon for repressing the republican movement in Rome, it was with his help that the eminent deputy was enabled to escape arrest. In the same year he was condemned for a press offense and took refuge in Savoy. During his exile he classified the collections of the Natural History Museum in Geneva; had charge of the arrangement of the Museum at Annecy in 1854; directed an exploitation of hydraulic lime in Italy; and served as geological adviser in the construction of the northern railways of that country. He was also associated with Agassiz in his studies of the glaciers of Switzerland. He returned to Paris in 1864, and in 1867 was charged with the organization of the first hall or prehistoric department of the History of Labor at the Universal Exposition of 1867. In 1868 he was called to the Museum of National Antiquities at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where he continued till 1885. It is specially mentioned that he carried this institution safely through the perils of the war of 1870-'71. While engaged in these museum tasks he was struck with the insufficiency of the then universally accepted paleontological and prehistoric classifications, and his attention became fully absorbed in the subject. He held long consultations with Edouard Lartet, the eminent paleontologist and his learned friends concerning it. As a result of these deliberations, after careful study of the formations and specimens, he proposed a scheme of classification in 1869, which was completed at the congress held in Brussels in 1872, and has become generally accepted in its fundamentals, after having withstood the often-repeated attacks of persistent criticism, and has received confirmation after confirmation from innumerable discoveries made throughout the world. "Had his activity concerned only the classification of the different stone ages," says Dr. Capitan, whose eulogy of M. de Mortillet we follow most largely in our sketch, "de Mortillet would for that work alone have been by good right considered a great man of science. Actually to illuminate a number of dark points, to group a thousand scattered facts in regular order, to synthetize numerous isolated researches, to constitute a cohesive theory of them—that is what de Mortillet did. Thus he became long ago the uncontested master, the leader of a school, who was able to group and hold around him the scientific students and workers of the entire world."

M. de Mortillet was in 1866 one of the founders of the International Congress of Prehistoric Archæology. He was one of the first professors in the École d'Anthropologic founded by Broca in 1875, the greatest achievement, as he writes in the preface to his Formation de la Nation française, of the Association for the Teaching of Anthropological Sciences. The school was opened in November, 1875, in a building gratuitously lent it by the École de Médecine, to give instruction free of tuition charges, and was to be maintained by a fund subscribed by anthropological societies and private persons, a gift of fifteen hundred dollars a year by M. Wallon for laboratory purposes, and a grant of twenty-five hundred dollars from the Municipal Council of Paris for the payment of professors' salaries. Five courses of lectures were to be delivered, to be increased as the resources of the association multiplied. The association and the school were recognized as of public utility by a law of 1889; the school being the first establishment of private instruction, Dr. Capitan said in his memorial address, "and up to this time (1897) the only one that has had that honor, an honor that creates duties for us. We are under obligation to clarify and extend our teaching." De Mortillet's work was so true to the sentiment expressed in this sentence that one of the characteristics attributed to him in the short biography published in Vaporeau's Dictionnaire Universel des Contemporains is that he was one of the men who contributed most to the popularizing of prehistoric studies in France. During the more than twenty years of his professorship of prehistoric anthropology in the École, de Mortillet "gave precious instruction to numerous students, many of whom, foreigners, have in their turns become masters in their own countries." He was also president of the Society of Anthropology, subdirector of the École d'Anthropologie, president of the Association for Teaching Anthropological Sciences, and president of the Commission on Megalithic Monuments—the various functions of which offices he filled with remarkable exactness and distinction. "In all these important positions," says Dr. Capitan in his eulogy, "de Mortillet unfailingly brought a uniform ardor to his work, a uniform activity, a clear and acute wit, and a remarkable precision. He performed his numerous duties almost to the end of his life. Only last month (July, 1898) he made another journey for the execution of a mission which the commission on megalithic monuments had intrusted to him."

In connection with these multifarious labors, M. de Mortillet published a considerable number of memoirs and of books of the highest order. He was a transformist from the very first, and performed all his various researches in the spirit of an evolutionist. His first publications were on conchology, and numerous memoirs between 1851 and 1862 related to subjects in that branch. During the same period he contributed many important works on the geology and mineralogy of Savoy. Among these were the History of the Land and Fresh-water Mollusks of Savoy and the Basin of Lake Leman, and a Guide to the Traveler in Savoy. His attention was afterward more entirely directed to prehistoric archaeology and anthropology, and he published in 1866 a curious Study on the Sign of the Cross previous to Christianity. Of this period, too, are his Promenades, or Walks, in the Universal Exposition of 1867, and his Walks in the Museum of Saint-Germain, 1869. He founded, in 1864, the Recueil, or Collection of Materials for the Positive History of Man, which was afterward continued at Toulouse by M. E. Cartailhac. In 1879 he published a work on pottery marks—Potiérs allobroges, ou les Sigles figulins étudiés par les Méthodes de l'Histoire naturelle. In 1881, in co-operation with his son, Adrien de Mortillet, as artist, he published a magnificent illustrated work or album, Le Muséee Préhistorique (The Prehistoric Museum); and in 1883, the volume Le Préhistorique (Prehistoric Archæology); two books which have taken rank as master works. A second edition of the Préhistorique appeared in 1885, and at the time of his death he was preparing a third, in which he was taking great pains to bring the matter up to the present condition of the science. Another important work was the Origines de la Chasse et de la Pêche (Origin of Hunting and Fishing). A considerable number of memoirs by M. de Mortillet appeared in various scientific journals, especially in the two founded by him—Les Matéeriaux pour l'Histoire primitive et naturelle de l'Homme, already mentioned, and L'Homme, which was established in 1884.

An epoch in M. de Mortillet's life was marked in 1873, when a discussion took place at the Anthropological Congress, in Lyons, between him and M. Abel Hovelacque concerning the precursors of man. The researches of the two masters had already led them, by a series of observations and deductions, to regard as certain the geological existence of a being intermediate between man and the monkey, which they called the Anthropopithecus, and they were trying to indicate, hypothetically, its leading characteristics.

M. de Mortillet's reasons for believing in the existence of this precursor of man as a definite being were presented in the Revue d 'Anthropologie, in an article which was translated and published in the Popular Science Monthly for April, 1879. In this paper the author summarized the evidence, already copious, in favor of the existence of Quaternary man, and then took up the question, "Did there exist in the Tertiary age beings sufficiently intelligent to perform a part of the acts which are characteristic of man?" He then reviewed the researches of the Abbé Bourgeois at Thenay in the light of a collection of fire-marked flints which he had exhibited at the International Congress of Prehistoric Archæology and Anthropology held in Paris in 1867, and deduced from the result that "during the Middle Tertiary there existed a creature, precursor of man, an anthropopithecus, which was acquainted with fire, and could make use of it for splitting flints. It also was able to trim the flint flakes thus produced, and to convert them into tools. This curious and interesting discovery for a long time stood alone, and arguments were even drawn from its isolated position to favor the rejection of it. Fortunately, another French observer, M. J. B. Rames, has found in the vicinity of Aurillac (Cantal), in the strata of the upper part of the Middle Tertiary—here, too, in company with mastodons and dinotheriums, though of more recent species than those of Thenay—flints which also have been redressed intentionally. In this case, however, the flints are no longer split by fire, but by tapping. It is something more than a continuation, it is a development. Among the few specimens exhibited by M. Rames, whose discoveries are quite recent, is one which, had it been found on the surface of the ground, would never have been called in question." The evidence afforded by these flints was confirmed by a collection of flints from the Miocene and the Pliocene of the valley of the Tagus shown by Sehor Ribeiro in the same exhibition, a considerable proportion of which bore evidence of intentional chipping.

Bearing upon this point was a chart of the Palæolithic Age in Gaul, drawn up by M. de Mortillet in 1871, and published in the Bulletin de la Société d'Anthropologie de Paris—"the only work of the kind extant"—in which were recorded five localities in which occurred supposed traces of man in the Tertiary, forty-one alluvial deposits in the Quaternary yielding human bones and industrial remains, and two hundred and seventy-eight caverns containing Quaternary fauna with traces of prehistoric man.

M. de Mortillet gave in another form his view of the sort of creature the hypothetical anthropopithecus should be in a paper on Tertiary Man, read before the Anthropological Section of the French Association for the Advancement of Science in 1885, when he said the question was not to find whether man already existed in the Tertiary epoch as he exists at the present day. Animals varied from one geological epoch to another, and the higher the animals the greater was the variation. It was to be inferred, therefore, that man would vary more rapidly than the other mammals. The problem was to discover in the Tertiary period an ancestral form of man a predecessor of the man of historical times. There were, he affirmed, unquestionably in the Tertiary strata objects which implied the existence of an intelligent being—animals less intelligent than existing man, but much more intelligent than existing apes. While the skeleton of this ancestral form of man had not yet been discovered, he had made himself known to us in the clearest manner by his works. The general opinion of the meeting after hearing M. de Mortillet's paper is said to have been that there could be no longer any doubt of the existence of the supposed ancestral form of man in the Tertiary period.

The discovery in Java, announced by Dr. Dubois, in 1896, of fossil remains presenting structural characteristics between those of man and those of the monkey, to which the name Pithecanthropus erectus was given, were accepted with hardly a question by M. de Mortillet and his colleagues as confirming his views.

At a banquet given to M. de Mortillet, May 1, 1884, by a number of anthropologists, when his portrait was presented to him, the hall was decorated for the occasion with a life-size picture of an ancient Gaul, executed according to his latest researches. The man was represented as having no hair on his body; with very long arms and very powerful muscles; his feet capable of being used in climbing trees, but with toes not opposable; his jaw strongly prognathous, but not at all equal to that of an anthropoid ape; his breadth strongly compressed laterally and his abdomen prominent; the skin not negroid, but of our present color; and the expression of his face was about as intelligent as that of an Australian.

In his Le Préhistorique M. de Mortillet attempted to determine how far distant was the epoch when Homo sapiens first appeared on the earth, by estimating the rate of progression of blocks which were carried by former ice fields, as he had observed them in Switzerland with Agassiz. His conclusion was that more than two hundred thousand years had elapsed since that event.

In 1894 M. de Mortillet proposed in the Société d' Anthropologie an important reform in chronology. Pointing out the inconvenience of using several different eras, such as the Foundation of Rome, the Flight of Mohammed, and the Proclamation of the French Republic, he suggested that ten thousand years before the Christian era be adopted as a general starting point. This would include all Egyptian chronology as known at the present day, and would leave five thousand years at the disposal of future discoverers.

"A spirit always youthful, a man of progress," says Dr. Capitan in his eulogy, "our dear master kept himself fully in the current with all work relating to prehistoric archæology. He knew how to profit by whatever would contribute to perfect his own work. He therefore, on different occasions, modified his classification so as to keep it up to date, realizing that a classification is an admirable instrument of study, which ought to go through the same evolution as the science to which it is applied." This high quality of his mind appears clearly in his last book, published in 1897—Formation de la Nation française (Formation of the French Nation). This book comprised the substance of his lectures of the term 1889-'90. In publishing it he disavowed all intention of producing a new history of France. There were enough of these in all shapes and sizes, written in the most varied styles, with diverse tendencies, and from the most different points of view, and there were some most excellent works among them, particularly that of M. Henri Martin, which seemed to him to contain all the historical information known. But all these histories, even that of Henri Martin, although he had been president of the Anthropological Society of Paris, appeared to M. de Mortillet to be at fault in their starting point. They gave too much place in their beginnings to the legendary and the imaginary, and not enough to natural history and palæethnology. It was M. de Mortillet's purpose to follow an inverse method—to regard direct observation alone; and he would rest only on the impartial and precise discussion of texts and facts. "Texts, documents, and facts," he said, "become more and more rare as we go back in time. I shall collect and examine them with the greatest care in order to make our origins as clear as possible, and to enlarge the scale of our history. I shall appeal in succession to all the sciences of observation, and when I have recourse to the texts, I shall subject them to the closest criticism and the most complete analysis." The texts on which historians had so far relied did not go back far enough. They told of events three thousand or, including the Egyptian hieroglyphic texts, seven thousand years old, but what was this compared with the immense lapse of time during which man has lived, going back into the Quaternary epoch? On this vast period the texts furnish no information. They were, besides, inaccurate, tinged with fable and poetry, with local and personal prejudice and ignorance, even as to the times to which they relate after history is supposed to have come in. If we want light upon this unrecorded past, we must seek it by the aid of palæethnological data; and anthropology may be very advantageously united with palæethnology to furnish valuable instruction concerning the autochthonic race of France, its development, transformations, customs, and migrations, and the invasions it suffered in the most remote antiquity. "With the aid of these two sciences, both of wholly new origin, we are able to trace the earliest pages of the history of France." The book begins with a review of what the texts afford regarding the earlier peoples of France; then brings forward the evidence yielded by language and the study of the evolution of writing; next presents the results of research respecting the precursors of man, the rise and development of industries, societies, and civilization; and studies the primitive races of perhaps two hundred and thirty thousand or two hundred and forty thousand years ago; their mixture with the other races that came in from abroad and possessed the country; and, finally, the formation of the French population as we now find it.

M. de Mortillet's relations with his pupils and with his country, and his private character, are spoken of in the highest terms. For more than twenty years his lectures at the École d'Anthropologie, treating the most various questions respecting prehistoric times, attracted large and attentive audiences, often including students from abroad, who afterward became masters of the science in their own countries. "He was always ready to receive workers in the science, even the least and humblest, to bestow advice and encouragement upon them, and to give them the benefit of his experience and extensive erudition, and for this his pupils and friends lament him." Against his integrity no suspicion was ever breathed.

In political faith he was always advanced, and ever true to his convictions. He was maire of Saint-Germain from 1882 to 1888, and deputy from the department of Seine-et-Oise from 1885 to 1889.


In the observations of the meteoric shower of November 13, 1897, at Harvard College Observatory, one of the meteors appeared, according to the calculations, at the height of 406 miles, and disappeared at the height of 43 miles, and at a distance of 196 miles. Another appeared at a height of 182 miles and disappeared at a height of 48 miles, and a distance of 74 miles. The first meteor was red or orange, or, to Prof. W. H. Pickering, the color of a sodium flame, and the other white. Both penetrated the atmosphere to about the same depth, and both were clearly Leonids. These facts go to show, Professor Pickering thinks, that the difference in color noted is not due to a mere grazing of our atmosphere in some cases, and a correspondingly low temperature, but to an actual difference in the chemical composition of the individual meteors. .