Piveteau, Jean

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(b. Rouillac, Charente, France, 23 September 1899; d. Paris, France, 7 March 1991),

vertebrate paleontology, paleoanthropology.

Piveteau was the best-known French paleontologist of the mid-twentieth century because he edited Traité de Paléontologie (Treatise on paleontology; seven volumes in ten tomes, 1952–1969). At that time, the only similar treatise was the Soviet Osnovy Paleontologii (Fundamentals of paleontology; thirteen volumes, 1958–1964), edited by Uri Orlov, whereas Raymond C. Moore’s twenty-four-volume Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology (1953–1981) had a more restricted scope. Piveteau was also an excellent anatomist who brought to light significant features of Triassic actinopterygian fish and of mammal neurocrania. He described and interpreted the evolutionary significance of an exceptional Triassic amphibian that partly bridges the gap between stegocephalians and anurans, and he studied the origin and evolution of humans, for which he proposed a spiritualist interpretation deeply inspired by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s view of life.

Early Life Jean Piveteau was a quiet, rather reserved, and distinguished man who enjoyed the silence of his work space. His father was Gaston Piveteau, a merchant established at Rouillac, a small city of the Charente department, near Cognac, and his mother was Marie Barbotteaud. After studying in the lycée (high school) of Angoulême, where he graduated in 1917, he immediately entered the French army. After World War I he settled in Paris to study at the Sorbonne while working for a Parisian publisher to fund his studies. At that time, he frequently visited the Institut catholique of Paris, where he met Teilhard de Chardin, who introduced him to Marcellin Boule, the holder of the chair of paleontology in the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (French National Museum of Natural History). Just after his marriage to Marcelle Janet, the daughter of a renowned physicist and member of the French Académie des Sciences, he was sent in 1924 by Boule to southwest Madagascar to collect Permian amphibians and reptiles. Piveteau studied this material for his doctoral thesis, which he defended in 1926.

Studies in Fossil Vertebrate Anatomy The same year, Piveteau was appointed a scientist in the National Museum of Natural History and turned his interest in part to fossil mammals. In 1929 he described fossil mammals from the Upper Miocene in collaboration with Camille Arambourg, who had collected them near Thessaloniki, Greece, during World War I. In “Les mammifères de Nihowan” (1930), he and Teilhard de Chardin described the Plio-Pleistocene fossil mammals of Nihowan, China. Piveteau had been appointed chef de travaux (director of applied studies) in 1928 at the National School of Mines, where he was in charge of the practical paleontological studies, especially those devoted to invertebrate fossils. In 1931 the Caisse nationale des sciences (a national scientific funding agency which was the ancestor of the French Centre national de la recherche scientifique supported his research work as chargé de recherches in the National Museum of Natural History, although Piveteau continued teaching at the National School of Mines.

Boule then convinced Piveteau to study the cranial anatomy of fossil creodonts and carnivores from the Quercy phosphorites in southwestern France. The remarkable quality of preservation of the fossil mammals found in these Upper Eocene and Oligocene karstic deposits allowed him to make precise anatomical investigations, especially concerning the position of foramens in the basal part of the skull and the disposition of the nerves and blood vessels. He was thus able in 1931 to document an evolutionary parallelism in two families of carnivores, Nimravidae and Felidae, and to reconstruct the evolution of the cephalic vascular system of several genera of mammals, especially among creodonts in 1931 and carnivores in 1935. Additionally, Piveteau began to study casts of mammal endocrania, thereby introducing himself into the field of paleoneurology, a relatively new branch of anatomy created by Tilly Edinger. This led him to show that archaic placental mammals like creodonts differ from theriodont reptiles by an increase in the size of the cerebellum and of the cerebral hemispheres and by a reduction of the olfactive region. He published his results in “Études sur quelques Créodontes des phosphorites du Quercy” (1935).

Piveteau also studied fossil fish preserved as negative casts in the Triassic from northwestern Madagascar, dedicating an important monograph, “Paléontologie de Madagascar. XXI. Les poissons du Trias inférieur” (1934), to them. The remarkable preservation of these fish gave him the opportunity to study the structure of the neurocrania of some primitive actinopterygians and to confirm the validity of the segmental theory of the skull. He also proposed an attempt to reconstruct the cephalo-branchial circulatory system. Additionally, Piveteau noted that the evolutionary history of the lower vertebrates was accompanied by a regression of the bony tissue. Another aspect of his research was the demonstration of the bipolar paleogeographical distribution of the Triassic fish fauna, as a great similarity exists between that from Madagascar and those from Svalbard and Greenland, described earlier by Erik Stensiö.

In addition to the fish from northwestern Madagascar, an exceptional fossil was described by Piveteau, who immediately recognized that it was an ancestral type of anuran frogs, which he named Protobatrachus in 1937. This name, already in use, was later replaced by Triadobatrachus. This unique fossil appeared to him as a transitional type, filling the gap between stegocephalians and anurans. Moreover, the fact that this fossil exhibits a skull already similar to that of a frog, but a vertebral column devoid of urostyle and forearms and legs with two separate bones instead of fused bones as in modern frogs, convinced him that heterochronic processes had taken place in the evolutionary development of frogs. Going further, Piveteau thought that two different processes might explain the evolutionary modifications of living beings, one based on extrinsic factors resulting from influences exerted by the environment and the other deriving from intrinsic factors corresponding to “the intimate nature of the organism.” He was convinced that the occurrence of heterochrony in the development of such an organism is an argument for the predominance of intrinsic factors over environmental ones, as well as the existence of parallel trends in the evolution of different groups of amphibians, such as labyrinthodonts, phyllospondyles, and lepospondyles, a fact that he had commented one year earlier in “L’évolution parallèle et son mécanisme” (1936).

When Marcellin Boule retired in 1936, the position of professor of paleontology in the National Museum of Natural History opened up. Piveteau, supported by Boule, was the obvious favorite to succeed him, but behind-the-scenes machinations prevented his election, so that Camille Arambourg was eventually appointed.

Soon after his failed attempt to succeed Boule as head of the paleontological laboratory of the National Museum, Piveteau obtained the position of maître de recherches at the Caisse nationale des sciences in 1937. Thanks to the high level of his research on both lower vertebrates and the skull and brain of mammals, he was appointed maître de conférences in 1938 at the Sorbonne in Paris, a position equivalent to the first grade of professor. He was promoted to professeur sans chaire (full professor) in 1942 and finally obtained a chair of paleontology for himself at the Sorbonne in 1953. He occupied this chair until his retirement in 1970. Meanwhile Piveteau had been elected to the French Académie des Sciences in 1956 and to L’Académie Royale des Sciences of Belgium in 1962. He was also elected in the 1980s to the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (National Academy of Lincei) in Italy.

As a professor, Piveteau had an incomparable talent for explaining with great clarity his conception of the evolutionary history of vertebrates and the origin of humanity. He is remembered as a brilliant teacher whose lectures were highly appreciated by his students. His Des premiers vertébrés à l’homme (1963; From the first vertebrates to humankind), is a reliable indicator of the course that he taught at the Sorbonne in the early 1960s. His purpose was to describe the main stages of the anatomical evolution of vertebrates: from the armoured Agnatha to the Gnathostomata, first represented by fish and then by amphibians through the development of air breathing organs (lungs) and of paired limbs instead of fins; the development of reptiles, characterized by their amniotic eggs; and, finally, the appearance of mammals, with their more complex ear because of the transformation of the articulation of the jaw with the skull. Piveteau then focused on primates and finally on human origins, with special reference to Teilhard de Chardin’s metaphysical model. Another successful book, demonstrative of Piveteau’s great ability as a scientific writer, was Images des mondes disparus(1951; Images of bygone worlds), in which he described a series of paleontological scenes from the appearance of life to human paleontology in his native region of Charente.

The Traité de Paléontologie Having developed successful anatomical research programs on fossil vertebrates, Piveteau engaged in a new and important project, the publication of a French-language Traité de paléontologie(seven volumes in ten tomes, 1952–1969; Treatise on paleontology). It was probably inspired by the successful handbook, Les fossiles: Éléments de paléontologie (1935), on which he had collaborated with Boule. The last-published paleontological treatise was the four-volume Handbuch der Palaeontologie (1876–1893), edited by Karl Zittel (1839–1904), which had been translated into French and English. The important progress of paleontological knowledge since then required a more ambitious project. For this reason, instead of the four volumes of paleozoology written by Zittel, Piveteau planned a seven-volume collective treatise, a project that soon grew as it rapidly appeared that the sixth volume—devoted to fossil mammals—had to be divided into two tomes. It later became necessary to split volume four, which had been planned for fishlike vertebrates (Agnatha) and fish, into three parts. The publication of the treatise, which required the collaboration of fifty-one scientists, sixteen of them foreigners, was rapid except for one volume. From 1952 to 1961, six of the seven planned volumes appeared, but volume four appeared later because the best international expert for ostracoderms and placoderms, Stensiö, needed several years for his two long contributions. These parts of the fourth volume finally appeared in 1964 and 1969. Piveteau personally wrote several important chapters: for example, the ones on birds; on the origin and systematics of Mesozoic mammals, Prototheria, and Metatheria; on carnivores; and also on primates and human paleontology, to which the entire volume seven is dedicated.

The publication of the Traité de paléontologie was a great success, both for the fame of the French-speaking paleontological community and for the French publishers, Masson et Cie. Additionally, it provided Piveteau with international scientific status, and he was soon recognized in his own country as the highest paleontological authority, as illustrated by his election in 1956 to the Academy of Sciences.

Human Origins and Evolution Piveteau’s interest in the study of primate evolution began in 1948 with his anatomical study of the skull and brain cast of the subfossil Lemurian genus Archaeolemur from Madagascar. This convinced him that lemuriforms and lorisiforms were not involved in the origin of upper primates, because the design of their arterial cerebral system differs from that of simians and anthropomorphs.

Later, Piveteau introduced himself carefully into the “elite” field of paleoanthropology and prepared the anatomical description of the Neanderthalian skeleton found at Regourdou, near Montignac, Dordogne, a task he worked on from 1963 to 1966 but never completed. In 1967 he studied the Rissian parietal found in the Lazaret cave, on the outskirts of Nice, and finally, in 1970, the Rissian human remains found in “abri Suard” (Suard rock shelter) at La Chaise, Charente.

As demonstrated by the titles of several of his books on the topic, the origin and evolution of Homo sapiens rapidly became Piveteau’s first intellectual concern during the last thirty years of his life: L’origine de l’homme (1962), Origine et destinée de l’homme (1973), L’apparition de l’homme(1986), and finally La main et l’hominisation (1991), which was printed a few weeks before his death. In the first three books, Piveteau described human evolution as a succession of stages. First, he emphasized the importance of the acquisition of verticality by transformation of the posterior limb and pelvis. Piveteau considered bipedalism a decisive step because as a result, the hands became free for making and using lithic tools. Progressively, modifications appeared in the hand structure, making it possible to oppose the thumb to the other fingers, which increased the possibility of prehension, or grasping. This process was accompanied by a correlative increase in the size of the cerebral cortex. The area devoted to the hand became progressively larger than the one corresponding to the foot. Piveteau also believed that the interaction between hand and brain was responsible for the development of a reflective way of thinking that, finally, opened the way to the appearance of a structured language when the larynx became able to produce articulated sounds. Spirituality appeared later, as evidenced by the funerary rites that are already well-documented for Neanderthals and, still better, by the development of art (parietal paintings, engravings, and sculptures) during Upper Paleolithic times.

Being a disciple of Teilhard de Chardin, Piveteau was evidently a deeply convinced transformist. However, his view of biological evolution was completely unrelated to Charles Darwin's, and he considered the recent progress of paleoanthropology as being totally independent of the Darwinian and Lamarckian theories. In this field he can be considered a spiritualist evolutionist who tried to avoid precise explanations concerning the mechanisms and modalities of biological transformations. He was convinced that “intrinsic” factors are predominate in the evolutionary process. In fact, being also influenced by Henri Bergson’s Évolution créatrice (1907; Creative evolution) and Édouard Le Roy’s Les origines humaines et l’évolution de l’intelligence (1928), Piveteau, who was interested in a scientific approach of finality, distinguished an internal finality, corresponding to the conditions making possible the existence of living beings, and an external one, which may be defined as an adaptation to environmental conditions. Moreover, as he stated in “Aspects du problème de la finalité dans les sciences de la nature” (1949), Piveteau considered that paleontological evolution can be understood as the expression of tendencies, without predetermined design.

Although his views concerning biological evolution were obviously Christian, as he was a convinced follower of Teilhard de Chardin’s philosophy, Piveteau was an open-minded, tolerant scientist, respectful of divergent points of view. He demonstrated this by his decision to organize an international meeting in Paris in April 1947 (sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation), to which he invited several important foreign scientists. Among them were the English (later Indian) geneticist John B. S. Hal-dane and the American paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, two theoreticians of the neo-Darwinian New Synthesis. Haldane lectured on “The Mechanisms of Evolution” and Simpson on “Orthogenesis and the Synthetic Theory of Evolution” and also on “Micro-evolution, Macro-evolution, and Mega-evolution.” This meeting, the proceedings of which were edited by Piveteau in a book, Paléontologie et Transformisme (1950), provided an excellent opportunity for the confrontation of different approaches to evolution; the French paleontologists and biologists were at that time generally more inclined to consider evolution as depending on internal tendencies leading to a final purpose, whereas English and American scientists considered natural selection to be the major evolutionary mechanism. It is significant that Piveteau, who convened the meeting, never intervened or objected to any argument opposed to his own conceptions. Nevertheless, Piveteau, who was little inclined to modify his own opinions, was not at all influenced by the new evolutionary synthesis and remained faithful to his previous conceptions.

History of Natural Sciences Piveteau, finally, also contributed to the history of natural science and was sometimes asked to give lectures on this topic at the Sorbonne. Although he rarely published historical studies, his acute analysis of the 1830 debate between Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Georges Cuvier, in “Le débat entre Cuvier et Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire sur l’unité de plan et de composition” (The debate between Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire over unity of design and composition), appeared in 1950. Cuvier had strongly criticized the “théorie des analogues” of Geoffroy, who considered that all animal groups are designed according to the same organizational plan. Another major contribution by Piveteau to the history of science was the extensive Oeuvres philosophiques de Buffon (1954), which he edited. In it Piveteau reprinted significant excerpts from Comte Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon’s works, especially from his Théorie de la Terre (1749) and Époques de la Nature(1778), and he provided an introduction to the volume.



“Paléontologie de Madagascar. XIII. Amphibiens et reptiles permiens.” Annales de Paléontologie 15 (1926): 53–179.

With Camille Arambourg. “Les vertébrés du Pontien de Salonique.” Annales de Paléontologie 18 (1929): 59–138.

With Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. “Les mammifères fossiles de Nihowan.” Annales de Paléontologie 19 (1930): 1–134.

“Les chats des phosphorites du Quercy.” Annales de Paléontologie 20 (1931): 105–163.

“Paléontologie de Madagascar. XXI. Les poissons du Trias inférieur: Contribution à l’étude des Actinoptérygiens.” Annales de Paléontologie 23 (1934): 81–183.

“Études sur quelques Créodontes des phosphorites du Quercy.” Annales de Paléontologie 24 (1935): 73–95.

With Marcellin Boule. Les fossiles: Éléments de paléontologie. Paris: Masson, 1935.

“L’évolution parallèle et son mécanisme.” La terre et la vie 6 (1936): 30–36.

“Paléontologie de Madagascar. XXIII. Un amphibien du Trias inférieur: Essai sur l’origine et l’évolution des amphibiens anoures.” Annales de Paléontologie 26 (1937): 135–178.

“Recherches anatomiques sur les Lémuriens disparus: Le genre

Archaeolemur.” Annales de Paléontologie 34 (1948): 125–172.

“Aspects du problème de la finalité dans les sciences de la nature.” Annales Hébert et Haug 7 (1949): 333–343.

“Le débat entre Cuvier et Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire sur l’unité de plan et de composition.” Revue d’Histoire des Sciences 3 (1950): 343–363.

Editor. Paléontologie et transformisme. Paris: Albin Michel, 1950. Images des mondes disparus. Paris: Masson, 1951.

Editor. Traité de paléontologie. 7 vols. Paris: Masson, 1952–1969.

Editor. Oeuvres philosophiques de Buffon. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1954.

L’origine de l’homme: L’homme et son passé. Paris: Hachette, 1962.

Des premiers vertébrés à l’homme. Paris: Albin Michel, 1963.

“La grotte de Regourdou (Dordogne): Paléontologie humaine.” Annales de Paléontologie 49 (1963): 283–304; 50 (1964): 155–194; 52 (1966): 163–194.

“Un pariétal humain de la grotte du Lazaret (Alpes-Maritimes).” Annales de Paléontologie (Vertébrés) 53 (1967): 165–199.

“Les grottes de La Chaise (Charente): Paléontologie humaine. I. L’homme de l’abri Suard.” Annales de Paléontologie (Vertébrés) 56 (1970): 173–325.

Origine et destinée de l’homme. 2nd ed. Paris: Masson, 1983.

L’apparition de l’homme—Le point de vue scientifique. Paris: O.E.I.L., 1986.

La main et l’hominisation. Paris: Masson, 1991.


Coppens, Yves. “La vie et l’œuvre de Jean Piveteau.” Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des sciences, Paris, La vie des sciences, série générale, 9, no. 5 (1992): 445–451.

Gaudant, Jean. “Hommage à Jean Piveteau (1899–1991) pour le centenaire de sa naissance.” Travaux du Comité français d’Histoire de la Géologie, 3rd series, 13, no. 3 (1999): 29–38.

Taquet, Philippe, ed. “Hommage au Professeur Jean Piveteau.” Annales de Paléontologie 77, no. 4 (1991): 227–283.

Jean Gaudant