Boucher De Crèvecoeur De Perthes, Jacques

views updated May 14 2018


(b. Rethel. Ardennes, France, 10 September 1788; d. Abbeville, France, 5 August 1868)

prehistory, human paleontology,

Boucher de Crèvecoeur was descended on his father’s side from an old family of the Champagne district and through his mother. Stéphanie de Perthes, from an uncle of Joan of Arc. The only male heir ’ his mother’s family, he took its name in 1818 and thus became Boucher de Perthes. His father, Jules Armand Guillaume Boucher de Crève-coeur, had been a financier before the Revolution; under the Empire he became director of customs at Abbeville. A good naturalist and a corresponding member of the Institute for the subject of botany, he knew Lamarck, Cuvier. and Alexandre Brongniart.

Boucher, who was only a mediocre student, joined the Customs Administration, in which he spent his entire career. In 1825 he was appointed director of customs at Abbeville, where he spent the rest of his life.

At a very young age Boucher de Perthes began to write on literary, philosophical, economic, and social questions. In Opinion de M. Cristophe (4 vols., 1825 – 1834). which is written in a humorous style, he defended political and commercial liberty, the dignity of work and industry, and the abolition of the death penalty. Other works dealt with the condition of women and popular education. He was one of the first to suggest the holding of universal expositions. It seems that he was close to the Saint-Simonians. He defined his most important philosophical work, De la Création(5 vols., 1838–1841) as an “essai sur Torigine et la progression des êtres.” Inspired, it appears, by Buffon, Charles Bonnet, and Lamarck, but also by German Naiurphilosophie, the work presents a theory of the universal evolution of nature–a rather confused theory composed of diverse elements, but typical of French romanticism.

After moving to Abbeville. Boucher de Perthes became president of its local learned society, the Société d’Émulation (founded in 1798). The exceptional richness of the nearby beds in the lower valley and estuary of the Somme led its members to take a particular interest in archaeology and paleontology. Numerous mammalian fossils had been exhumed and sent to Cuvier: and in 1835 a young physician, Casimir Picard, began to discover and identify axes made of polished stone.

Following Picand’s death in 1841, Boucher de Perthes continued his investigations, on which he had been collaborating since 1837. The results of this research, presented in 1840 to the Société d’Emulation, were published in 1846 as De l’industrie primitive, ou ties arts à lew origine.Boucher de Perthes carefully distinguished two categories of objects, according to the site at which they were discovered. The first group, consisting of axes of hewn or polished stone and tools made of stone or horn, came from the beds near the surface of the earth, peat bogs, and the bed of the Somme. They were attributed to a “Celtic” people, supposedly the immediate predecessors of the Gauls. The others, hewn stone axes and tools, came from much older “diluvial” terrain at Menche-court. I’Hopital, and Moulin-Quignon. These beds, the “diluvium” of Cuvier and Brongniart, were generally considered to be the remnants of a geological catastrophe, a gigantic “deluge” dating from the end of the Tertiary. They were soon called “terrains de transport” and were later interpreted as resulting from the glaciations of the Pleistocene. In these beds the stone axes and tools were mixed with the mammalian fossil bones that Cuvier had identified as being of extinct species: Elephas pri-migenius, rhinoceros, and so on. From them Boucher de Perthes deduced the existence of “homme antédiluvien,” contemporary with the extinct species and therefore much older than any known human population.

In order to arrive at these conclusions, it was necessary to define man by work and by tools, and not only by reason and language; to identify hewn flints as objects made by man; and to employ a rigorous stratigraphic method. All this was new at the time, and the conclusions seemed shocking: Boucher de Perthes convinced almost nobody. Reissued in 1847 under the new title Antiquitis celtiques et antédiluviennes, his book had no success. Superficially criticized in the press, it was ignored by official science. The Académie des Sciences named a commission to verify the facts of the case; but the commission took no action, and nothing more was said about the matter. It should be noted, however, that Boucher de Perthes made the mistake of including in his collection of axes and tools a much more questionable group of small stones on which he saw’’objects of art,” “symbols,” and antediluvian “hieroglyphics.” Moreover, his philosophical-historical interpretation of antediluvian man was quite bold. But the main cause of the resistance among scientists was their loyalty to Cuvier’s teaching. All the previous discoveries in this field–those of John Frere (1799). Ami Boué and Crahay (1823), Paul Tournal and Julien de Christol (1826 and 1829), and especially those of Schmerling (published at Liege in 1833 and 1834)-had encountered the same resistance, as had those of J. MacEnery and Robert Godwin-Austen in England, where Buckland played the role that Cuvier did in France. None of this work was adequately appreciated until Boucher de Perthes had achieved his success.

Meanwhile, Boucher de Perthes continued his research, encouraged by the discoveries of F.-A. Spring in Belgium (1853) and the finds made at St.-Acheul, near Amiens (1856). The second volume of Antiquités celtiques et antédiluviennesm (1857) enjoyed no more success than the first; but it did inspire Joseph John Prestwich and Hugh Falconer, who were pursuing analogous investigations in England, to come to Abbeville in 1858 and 1859. Soon convinced of the value of Boucher de Perthes’s work, they encouraged other English scientists, including Charles Lyell, to join them. All of them corroborated Boucher de Perthes’s assertions. The Academie des Sciences was finally obliged to break its silence. It sent Albert Gaudry to Abbeville to examine the question and, upon his favorable report, converted to Boucher de Perthes’s views. In De l’ homme antediluvien et de ses oeuvres, a little book written with great restraint, Boucher de Perthes recounted his work, his trials, and his ultimate triumph (1860). He regretted only that skepticism was still voiced regarding the art objects, symbols, and hieroglyphics.

Although it appeared that actual fossil remains of this hypothetical ancient man had yet to be found, a great many of them had already been discovered; but these finds had all been challenged. Those of Spring had been made in a grotto, as had those of Lartet at Aurignac (1860). On 23 March 1863, in the quarry at Moulin-Quignon, Boucher de Perthes found a human tooth and some axes, and on 28 March, three teeth, a jawbone, and an axe. The discovery caused much excitement; but it also unleashed a violent campaign in the English press, where Boucher de Perthes was accused of being the author, or else the very naive victim, of a crude fabrication. The French scientists, now supporters of Boucher de Perthes, and the English scientists, who had become skeptical, gathered in Paris and then in Abbeville from 9 to 18 May 1863. They concluded that the discovery was authentic. Even so, public opinion, especially in England, was not satisfied; the work of * Falconer. Lartet, Vibraye, and others multiplied the discoveries, however, and very quickly established the antiquity of man beyond what even Boucher de Perthes had been able to conceive.

Boucher de Perthes related all these events in the third volume of Antiquités (1864). He pursued his excavations, accumulating more or less authentic human fossils, and continued to write (notably Des outils de pierre [Paris, 1865]). He was elected honorary president of the Société d’Emulation in 1866, only a few years before a disease brought an end to his life.

Boucher de Perthes was not the first to discover hewn flints, or even human fossils; and he owed part of his ultimate success to the unusual richness of the beds he excavated. Still, he far surpassed his predecessors in the rigorous use of the stratigraphic method and the skillful application of the techniques of excavation. His other strength was never to let himself be discouraged by the resistance to the idea of the great antiquity of the human species. His influence on anthropology was considerable. Although an amateur whose work was sometimes of uneven quality, he deserves recognition as the man who won acceptance for the idea of a human paleontology.


Boucher’s most important works are cited in the text. A complete bibliography would include more than thirty titles.

Studies devoted to Boucher include Leon Aufrère. Essai sur les premières décvouvertes de Boucher de Perthes et les origines de l’archéologie primitive (1838–1844) (Paris. 1936); and Figures de préhistoriens (Paris. 1939); and Victor-Amédée Meunier, Les ancêtres d’Adam. Histoire de I’homme fossile (Paris, 1875).

Jacques Roger

Boucher De Crèvecoeur De Perthes, Jacques

views updated May 29 2018

Boucher De Crèvecoeur De Perthes, Jacques

(b. Rethel, Ardennes, France, 10 September 1788; d. Abbeville, France, 5 August 1868)


Boucher was the director of the customshouse at Abbeville, where he spent his leisure time in archaeological pursuits. Here he found evidences of Stone Age cultures, which he reported and interpreted in a series of monographs. Although rejected by the scientific society of Abbeville, his work came to the attention of a group of eminent British scientists (including Lyell), who in 1859 visited the sites of his excavations and supported his conclusions. For a complete study of his scientific accomplishments and writings see Supplement.

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Jacques Boucher de Crevecoeur de Perthes

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