Rivière De Pr
RIVIèRE DE PRéCOURT, ÉMILE-VALèRE
(b. Paris, France, 22 April 1835; d. Paris, 25 January 1922) speleology, anthropology.
Rivière, son of a general practitioner, contemplated a career in medicine after his graduation from the Lycée Bonaparte and for a while was an intern at the Asile de Vincennes at Le Vésinet.
Because of ill health Rivière journeyed to Cannes in 1868 and to Menton in 1869. In 1870, having settled at Menton, he began to explore the nine caves of the Baoussé-Roussé, a promontory of Jurassic limestone just across the Italian border in the commune of Grimaldi. He sought and received permission from the Italian government to excavate the first four caves and to control access to the fifth, sixth, and seventh.
On 26 March 1872 Rivière uncovered, at a depth of 6.55 meters and about seven meters from the entrance of the fourth cave (Grotte de Cavillion), a nearly perfect adult male skeleton. It lay on its left side with its legs slightly flexed and its arms folded upward so that the left hand cradled its cheek. The skull bore a headdress made of more than two hundred perforated Nassa shells interspersed with twenty-two stag canine teeth. A garter of forty-one Nassa neritea adorned the left knee. On the forehead there rested a needle or dagger-like weapon made from a deer radius and under the back of the skull lay two broken triangular silex knives. The skull and implements buried with the skeleton were covered with powdered hematite, a substance also found in a small trench cut near the mouth.
During February 1873 Rivière excavated a skeleton from the sixth cave, and in June of the same year he unearthed two more. The first two, remains of adults, were sprinkled with the ferruginous powder and were accompanied by shell, flint, and bone grave goods. The last, a youth of approximately fifteen, was interred face-down without ornaments and without the red coloration.
Explorations in the first cave in July 1875 yielded skeletons of two children, ages four to six. They were lying together in extended position, arms at sides, feet outward. They were covered by a mantle of shells, a single flint interred between them. The children’s bones lacked the red powder.
The human remains were found in deposits also containing the bones of cave bear, hyena, rhinoceros, and stag. Rivière contended that they were contemporary with the animals and that they therefore dated from the Pleistocene. He argued, further, that the peroxide of iron sprinkled on the bones of the adults and the weapons buried with them were evidence that the Cro-Magnon peoples, of which he was convinced his discoveries were examples, practiced funereal rites. A description of his finds and the conclusions drawn from them are in his Paléontologie: De I’antiquité de l’homme dans les Alpes-Maritimes (1887).
Rivière’s claims were vigorously contested at the time by most prehistorians. Gabriel de Mortillet, William Boyd Dawkins, and others believed that the skeletons had been buried in Pleistocene deposits by Neolithic peoples. The controversy over the geological age of the Baoussé-Roussé skeletons continued until an archaeological team commissioned by Albert I of Monaco re-explored the Grimaldi caverns and produced indisputable evidence that Rivière had been correct.
Late in 1887 Rivière turned his attention to the caves of the Dordogne. In June 1887 he discovered a previously unknown chamber at the grotto of La Mouthe. Carved into the walls were representations of bison, ibex, reindeer, horse, and mammoth. The authenticity of the La Mouthe cave art was challenged, as the polychromes at Altamira, Spain, had been in 1879. Rivière presented evidence that the carvings were partially covered by debris from both the Paleolithic and Neolithic and that therefore they had to be dated at least from the Paleolithic; but his discoveries remained controversial until after publication by Breuil and L. Capitan of their discoveries at Les Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume in 1901.
I. Original Works. Rivière’s main publication is Paléontologie: De l’antiquité de l’homme dans les Alpes-Maritimes (Paris, 1887). Brief notices and articles on the finds near Menton appear in the Comptes rendus of the Paris Academy and the International Congress of Anthro-Pology and Prehistoric Archaeology, as well as of the Association Française pour l’Avancement des Sciences, between 1872 and 1900. Reports of his investigations of the Dordogne caves are in the Comptes rendus of the Paris Academy: 119 (1894), 358–361; 122 (1896), 1563–1565; 123 (1896), 714–715; 124 (1897), 731–734. The engravings of the La Mouthe grotto are reproduced and described in Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for 1901 (1902), 439–449, a trans. from the Bulletin et mémoires de la Société d’anthropologie de Paris, 5th ser., 2 (1901), 509–518.
II. Secondary Literature. See J. Bossavy’s “Nécrologie,” in Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, 19 (1922), 257–264; and M. Boule and H. Valois, Fossil Men (London-New York, 1957), translated by Michael Bullock from Les hommes fossiles, 5th ed.
Martha B. Kendall