Jelínek, Jan

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(b. Brno, Czechoslovakia, 6 February 1926; d. Brno, Czech Republic, 3 October 2004),

human paleontology, museology.

Jelínek made important contributions to the human paleontology of Central Europe, especially the Moravian Middle and Late Pleistocene and in the promotion of the study of human evolution and paleoanthropology through museology. In paleoanthropology, Jelínek was recognized for his descriptions of Moravian Neandertal and upper Paleolithic fossils and his argument that modern humans traced at least part of their ancestry to Neandertals. In museology he founded in 1963 one of the first training programs in museum studies at Masaryk University in Brno, was president of the United Nations’s international council of museums for five years, and was renowned for his innovative museum exhibits at the Anthropos Pavillion in Brno, Czech Republic.

Jelínek was born in Brno with one sister, Zdena; his mother, Marie Nevolova, was a housewife and his father, Jan, was a clerk. Through scouting, the young Jelínek developed an interest in Moravian natural history and pre-history, which he followed up in his academic work. He married Kveta Rejzkova, a medical doctor, in 1952, and they had one son, Jan.

Jelínek studied with Karel Absolon and Vojtech Suk at Masaryk University-Brno. After completing his degree, he joined the Moravian Museum in Brno as a researcher in 1947 and in 1958 was promoted to director. He immediately reorganized the museum, hiring young scholars specializing in prehistoric archaeology, such as Karel Valoch, and in zooarchaeology, including Rudolf Musil. With them, Jelínek initiated interdisciplinary, prehistoric research at key Paleolithic sites in Moravia including Mladeč; Předmostí; Stranska Skalá and, most extensively, Kůlna. He also participated in excavations at numerous Neolithic (e.g., Vedrovice) and more recent sites in Moravia. Overall, he wrote more than two hundred mostly single-authored articles in journals; book chapters; and books dealing with wide-ranging topics from New Guinea art to Neandertals to museology.

In 1962, Jelínek restarted the scientific journal Anthropologie, which was originally founded in 1923 by Jindrich Matiegka from Prague’s Charles University but was suspended at his death in 1941. Jelínek also revived the Anthropos monographic series and published twenty volumes, including important site descriptions (e.g., Brno II, Kůlna, Šipka); conference proceedings of the 2nd Congress of the European Anthropology Association in 1982; and a special volume in Anthropos in 1986 honoring his sixtieth birthday. Anthropologie and the Anthropos monographic series are important resources covering many aspects of paleoanthropology and initially functioned to promote research in archaeology and physical anthropology in what was then Czechoslovakia. They were used through exchange to acquire foreign journals and books in the cash-strapped socialist economy of the time.

His The Great Art of the Early Australians, an exhaustive inventory and interpretation of prehistoric art of Arnhem Land in northern Australia, appeared in 1989. The volume, based on fieldwork from 1969 to 1973, contains 412 figures and photographs of what now is lost or endangered cave art. His Das Grosse Bilderlexikon des Menschen in der Vorzeit (Great Pictorial Atlas of Prehistoric Man, London: Hamlyn, 1976), first issued in German in 1972, has been translated into fourteen languages and is a comprehensive review of the paleontological and archaeological evidence for human evolution. In the early twenty-first century many of the images are readily available on the Internet, but when released, the book was the most conveniently accessible warehouse of photos and drawings documenting two million years of human evolution. Jelínek published in 2004 a detailed review of Saharan prehistoric art (Sahara: Histoire de l’Art Rupestre Libyen) based on his 1980s Libyan fieldwork and wrote a massive compendium of prehistoric and ethnographic-present living structures, titled Střecha nad Hlavou: Kořeny Nejstarší Architektury (A house to live in), that was published posthumously in 2006.

In the early 1960s Jelínek instituted a museology degree program at Masaryk University in Brno. In line with the practice of the Moravian Museum, he stressed an interdisciplinary focus and included many different programs at Masaryk. In the late 1960s he became involved with UNESCO’s International Council of Museums (ICOM), serving on various committees and then as its president from 1971 to 1977. His creative ability and skill in the area of museum design resulted in the prescient Anthropos Pavilion in Brno, which opened in 1962. Although its founder was Absolon, it was Jelínek who convinced the central government to commit funds for a new building and his innovative presentation of prehistory that was responsible for its life-size reconstructions and original paintings by Zdeněk Burian.

Jelínek’s theoretical contributions focused especially on morphological variation in fossil populations and its relevance to questions of evolutionary relationships and issues involving speciation and species identification in the genus Homo. From his earliest publications, Jelínek stressed the importance of variation in human populations, whether recent or fossil, and how this impacted evolutionary questions. These points were discussed in his classic paper on the Central European fossil record, “Neanderthal Man and Homo sapiens in Central and Eastern Europe,” published in Current Anthropology in 1969. Jelínek maintained that the early Upper Paleolithic people were related to, not completely replaced by, Neandertals. He stressed the appearance of modern features in the Moravian European Neandertal finds (such Kůlna and Šipka) and retention of Neandertal features in specimens from the great Moravian sites of Brno, Dolní Věstonice, Mladeč, and Předmostí. These ideas were developed in detail in his colloborative work with David W. Frayer, Martin Oliva, and Milford H. Wolpoff on the Mladec skeletal remains in 2006.


A complete bibliography of Jelínek’s work does not exist, but the author’s tribute to him (David W. Frayer, “Some Parting Words for Jan Jelínek (February 6, 1926–October 3, 2004),” Journal of Human Evolution 49 (2005): 270–278) contains many of the most important references.


“Neanderthal Man and Homo sapiens in Central and Eastern Europe.” Current Anthropology 10 (1969): 475–503.

Das Grosse Bilderlexikon des Menschen in der Vorzeit. Prague: Artia, 1972.

“The Fields of Knowledge and Museums.” Journal of World History 14 (1972): 13–23.

The Great Art of the Early Australians: The Studies of the Evolution and Rock Art in the Society of Australian Hunters and Gatherers. Anthropos Study in Anthropology, Palaeoethnology, and Quaternary Geology 25. Brno, Czechoslovakia: Moravian Museum-Anthropos Institute, 1989.

Sahara: Histoire de l’Art Rupestre Libyen. Grenoble, France: Jérôme Millon, 2004.

Střecha nad Hlavou: Kořeny Nejstarší Architektur. [A house to live in]. Brno, Czech Republic, 2006.


Frayer, David W., Martin Oliva, and Milford H. Wolpoff. “Aurignacian Males from the Mladec Caves, Moravia, Czech Republic.” In Modern Humans at the Moravian Gate: Mladeč Cave and Its Remains, edited by Maria Teschler-Nicola. New York: Springer, 2006.

Novotny, Vladimir V., and Alena Mizerová. Fossil Man, New Facts—New Ideas: Papers in Honor of Jan Jelínek’s Life Anniversary. Brno, Czechoslovakia: Anthropos Institute–Moravian Museum, 1986.

Wolpoff, Milford H., and David W. Frayer. “Aurignacian Female Crania and Teeth from the Mladeč Caves, Moravia, Czech Republic.” In Modern Humans at the Moravian Gate: Mladec’Cave and Its Remains, edited by Maria Teschler-Nicola. New York: Springer, 2006.

David W. Frayer