Blanc, Alberto-Carlo

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Blanc, Alberto-Carlo

(b. Chambéry, France, 30 July 1906; d. Rome, Italy, 3 July 1960)

prehistory, ethnology.

Blanc was the son of Gian-Alberto Blanc, a distinguished naturalist and professor at the University of Rome and descendant of an old and prominent Savoyard family. When a part of the Duchy of Savoy voted for France in 1860, the Blancs chose to become Italian out of Ioyalty to the prince of Savoy. These origins endowed the Blanc family with a double culture, French and Italian. Like his father, Alberto-Carlo spoke and wrote the two languages with equal perfection. The family was affluent, owning extensive property, and like almost all Savoyard families they were Catholic. They were on friendly terms with the Abbé Breuil, the prehistorian. Sometimes, too, Cardinal Tisserant would accompany them into the field to take part in excavation sin search of traces of prehistoric man.

After distinguishing himself as a student at the universities of Pisa and Rome, Blanc was appointed in 1938 to teach a course in geology at the former institution. He was attracted primarily by the most recent era, the Quaternary, in which man made his appearance. He married in 1939. One month later he wrote to André Cailleux:

Forgive me for my somewhat tardy reply to your card of 21 February. In order to excuse myself at least partially, may I say that I was married on 20 February and that on the 25th of the same month I had the good luck to discover, in the midst of my honeymoon, a beautiful Neanderthal skull. Naturally, this upset all my plans and at the moment we, i.e., my wife and I, are in the process of digging in the new deposit here.

This letter was dated San Felice Circeo (Littoria), where the Blancs owned property. The Monte Circeo skull, after thorough examination, quickly became a classic, since it is the most complete Neanderthal skull yet discovered.

Blanc was called to the University of Rome in 1939, where he taught ethnology and human paleontology. In 1957 he was appointed to the chair in paleoethnology. A member of numerous academies and scientific societies, he also was invited to lecture at more than twenty foreign universities. He was elected president of several international commissions and of the Sixth Congress of the International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences. He was the moving spirit behind the magazine Quaternaria, dedicated to the natural and cultural history of the Quaternary era.

Toward the end of 1958, while on a field trip in Apulia in southern Italy, Blanc experienced the first attacks of the disease that proved fatal. But to his very last hours, according to his pupil Goreges Laplace, he “retained his extraordinary clarity of spirit, his marvelous smile, and the calm strength which he radiated”.

An industrious and efficient worker, Blanc published 164 works in the span of twenty-six years. When he started his work in 1934, European prehistory was dominated by the great if somewhat authoritarian figure of the Abbé Breuil. With the latter’s aid and advice, yet always preserving his independence, Blanc addressed himself first— and properly so— to the severe but beneficial school of empirical study. He participated in some hundred digs, most of which were performed under his direction. In Italy he discovered some fifty prehistoric deposits and six of the seven known human Nean derthal fossils of that country. Wisely, he studied the geology of these deposits with great care so as to be able to link up their history with that of the rest of Europe. The flora and fauna, which were interpreted by specialists, revealed changes during the course of time, a development to which Blanc turned his attention.

In 1939 Blanc was asked to give a course in the ethnology of presently existing populations, particularly the most primitive peoples. In comparing their type of life with that of prehistoric man of the advanced Paleolithic age, with which he was familiar, Blanc was struck by a clear deterioration in techniques and an ever-narrowing specialization as the transition from ancient to present times was followed. This led him to a new theory concerning the formation of ethnic groupings which he termed ethnolysis: starting from an ancient polymorphous ethnic grouping, present ethnic groupings are differentiated by a loss of characteristics:

“…their centrifugal diffusion, which occurred in very special conditions varying for each people, resulted necessarily in widely differing specializations; certain cultural elements persisted (and developed) in certain peoples while disappearing in others, who in turn preserved certain elements which the former had lost. Thus, by alternative elimination, there occurred a separation, a segregation, a lysis of cultural elements which had coexisted originally [L’évolution humane].

Blanc immediately recognized the potential affinities and generalizations of his idea. What he had assumed concerning ethnic groupings, he very soon extended to animal and plant associations, to the evolution of species, and in particular to the appearance of the human races: from ethnolysis he passed to cosmolysis, which embraced the physical, biological, and human universe:

Cosmolysis is that universal modality of evolution through which heterogeneous archaic entities and groupings, which in the state of primary blending contain a great number of characteristics and elements are resolved into more and more homogeneous and distinct entities, through Iysis (from the Greek Iuo, “I separate, dissolve”) and segregation in each case of characters and elements which coexist in a mixed state in the above mentioned archaic entities and groupings[Ibid].

Objections were raised to Blanc’s views on the grounds that human prehistory, like the evolution of the species, shows inverse examples, where we pass from the simple to the complex and more varied elements. Indeed, Blanc himself recognized these phases of growing complexity, for instance, between the beginning and the last part of the Stone Age, between the Abbevillian and the upper Paleolithic periods. From the point of view of ethnology, he placed them within a two-phase cycle, i.e., complexi-facation-simplification-the cycle that was to be repeated several times in the course of the ages. Evidently, however, he was far more interested in the second phase, that of simplification, or Iysis, which he had invented himself. Even if, contrary to Blanc, it is supposed that the first phase, i.e., acquisition of new characters and their formation, plays just as important or even more important a role in the evolution of animal and especially plant species, we must recognize that the idea of cosmolysis explains certain facts.

But there was more to it. Like his contemporaries, Blanc saw clearly that his hypothesis and the facts supporting it agreed quite with Neo-Darwinism, with the mutation-selection theory, and with the corpuscular theory of heredity that has been confirmed by so many other works since hid death. In this respect, he was a precursor.

Given to bold generalization, Blanc went even further and speculated about the hydrogen atom and its components. Its then apparent simplicity seemed to him deceptive and he saw there “the simplified product of a history proceeding from a fundamental complexity of matter” (Ibid.). Even if one finds Blanc’ theory of cosmolysis a less than complete explanation for the evolution of the cosmos, life, and mankind, Blanc’s idea must still be given credit for its intrinsic strength and greatness.


I. Original Works. Blanc’s writings include “Le glaciaire considéré au point de vue paléobiologique et géomorphologique,” in L’anthropologie, 48 (1938); “II Monte Circeo, le sue grotte paleolitiche ed il suo uomo fossile,” in Bollettino Società geografica italiana (1939); “Etnolisi—Sui fenomeni di segregazione in biologia ed in etnologia” in Rivista di antropologia, 33 (1940); “Cosmolisi—Interpretazione genetico-storica delle entità e degli aggrupamenti biologici ed etnologici,” ibid., 34 (1941–1942); “Sviluppoper lisi delle forme distinte,” in Quaderni di sintesi, 2 (1946); “l paleantropi di saccopastore e del Circeo,” in Quartär, 4 (1942); “Etnologia e paleontologia,” in Atti della Società italiana per il progresso delle scienze, 41 (1943); “L’évolution humaine dans le cadre de la cosmolyse,” in Cahiers de la Faculté de Théologie de I’Université de Lausanne(1946).

II. Secondary Literature. A good account and a discussion of cosmolysis is in Piero Leonardi, L’evoluzione dei viventi (Brescia, 1957), also trans, into Spanish as La evolucion biologica (Madrid, 1957); see pp. 265–276. For the life and works of Blanc, see the note by Georges Laplace in Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, 58 (1961), 515–519.

AndrÉ Cailleux

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Blanc, Alberto-Carlo

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