Boule, Marcellin

views updated

Boule, Marcellin

(b. Montsalvy, Cantal. France, 1 January 1861; d. Montsalvy, 4 July 1942)

human paleontology, geology.

Boule was born at the beginning of the decade during which the stratified deposits of the caves of southern France were to support in abundance the long record of man’s newly discovered antiquity. It was in Cantal and in its neighboring departments that, one after another, the sites were excavated to help complete the record of ancient man. Time and place set the intellectual scene for the emergence of Boule as the central figure in French prehistoric studies during the half century of his scientific career.

In 1880 Boule enrolled at the Faculty of Sciences of Toulouse, and during the succeeding four years earned the licence in natural sciences and then that in physical science. He completed his work toward the coveted teaching certificate in 1887 at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, to which he had received a scholarship the preceding year. The museum was then at its height as a center of research in the natural sciences, particularly geology. The influence of the museum pushed Boule in the direction of research rather than that of teaching, for which he had prepared. Although his initial interests were in the problems of stratigraphy and petrography, it was finally to paleontology that he devoted most of his efforts and to which he made his most significant research contributions. His personal association with Louis Lartet and Albert Gaudry, and particularly the enthusiasm of the latter, were responsible for the final localization of his interests. Returning to Paris in 1890 after a brief teaching assignment at Clermont-Ferrand, Boule received a doctorate in natural sciences in 1892. In the same year he became préparateur in the paleontological laboratory of the museum in preference to the offer of a professorship at Mont-pellier. An assistant to Gaudry, he succeeded him as professor of paleontology at the museum, a position he held until his retirement in 1936.

Although he began as a geologist, with much of his research in descriptive geology and stratigraphy, Boule’s importance lies in the role he played in the establishment of prehistory or paleoanthropology in France. Boule himself illustrates the close kinship between geology and prehistory in the period of the latter’s emergence, for in its beginnings prehistory was an extension of geology, drawing from it both its methodology and its scientific status and pretensions. No geologist working in the general region of the Auvergne could ignore the importance of the stratified deposits which provided the record of a vastly expanded time period for human existence and which made of man a species to be fitted into a geological context.

As Boule’s interests in nonhuman paleontology were shaped by his association with Lartet and Gaudry, so his archaeological and paleoanthropological work was stimulated by his close association and friendship at Toulouse with Émile Cartailhac, already a distinguished prehistoric archaeologist. As early as 1884 Boule described a prehistoric flint mine; and in 1887 he made stratigraphic studies of several newly discovered Mousterian rock shelters and, with Cartailhac, published a monograph on the Grotte de Reilhac which demonstrated that the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic was such as to cast doubt on the classical thesis of a clear break between the two epochs. These early studies foreshadowed an increasing concern with the earlier phases of human prehistory; and to both the collection and the interpretation of data Boule was able to bring a unique synthetic approach that was the product of his training and competence in stratigraphic geology, paleontology, and prehistoric archaeology. It was this total view of prehistoric man that formed the essential orientation of Les hommes fossiles: Éléments de palėontologie humaine, which was first published in 1921 and for a quarter of a century remained, in its several editions, the essential synthesis in paleoanthropology. Here he brought together the archaeological, geological, and zoological data in order to provide the record of human achievement and adaptation though the changing landscapes of the geological past. In this he saw human evolution in the proper sense, not as a series of anatomical stages alone but rather as the continuing process by which the human adapted to a constantly changing ecology.

Although its extensive approach was adumbrated by his earlier work with Cartailhac, Les homes fossils was built upon two decades of detailed work in paleoanthropology, of which the central accomplishment was the three-part monograph “L’homme fossile de la Chapelle-aux-Saints” (1911–1913). Its anatomical account of the most complete specimen of Neanderthal man then known set the standard for such detailed descriptions. Now known to be wrong in several particulars, Boule’ precise anatomical definition of Neanderthal man and the subsequent reconstruction provided the authority for his view that such specimens represented a distinct species population more primitive or apelike than modern man, one that could not be ancestrally related to him. It was this view that long formed the cornerstone of the theoretical structure of French paleoanthropology.

Apart from his many contributions to the rapidly expanding body of knowledge relating to man’ past, Boucle was one of the most distinguished statesmen and persuasive editor from 1893 to 1920. When science. One of the founders of L’anthropologic in 1890, he was its editor from 1893 to 1920 when Albert I of Monaco, impressed by the remains uncovered in his own principality, founded the Institute for Human Paleontology in 1920 by World War I, served as the appointed its first director, a position he held until his death. The institute, whose opening he delayed until 1920 by World war I, served as the center and instigator of research in human paleontology. Boucle founded its Archives and was the active agent of its researches. As editor of the two most distinguished journals in they field and as director of the only research establishment devoted solely to its pursuit, Boucle set the tone and the tempo for Old World paleoanthropology in the first third of this century.


I. Orginal Works. Works by Boucle include “Essai de paleontologie stratigraphique de l’homme” in Revue de anthropologie (1888–1889); Les grottos de Grimaldi: Géologie, et paléontologie (Monaco, 1906–1910); L’homme fossil de la Chapelle-aux-Saints” in Annales de paléontologie, 6–8; Les homes fossils: Eléments de paléontologie humane (Paris, 1921).

II. Secondary Literature. See “Jublié de M. Marcellin Boucle,” in L’ anthropologic47 (1937), 583–648, which includes a complete bibliography through 1937; and H. V. Vallois, “Marcellin Boucle” ibid., 50 (1946), 203–210.

J. Gruber

About this article

Boule, Marcellin

Updated About content Print Article