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Vallois, Henri Victor


(b. Nancy, France, 11 April 1889;

d. Paris, France, 26 August 1981) anthropology, paleoanthropology, racial classifications, blood groups, hominid phylogeny, presapiens, Neanderthals.

Vallois was a French anatomist and anthropologist whose publications carried on the French tradition of physical anthropology, defined as an attempt to describe and classify human varieties in space and time. From 1930 to 1970, Vallois held major institutional positions in his field. His main achievements in anthropology concerned the classifications of human races and the attempt to introduce blood groups into racial taxonomy. In palaeoanthropology he was one of the last and most persistent advocates of the now-rejected presapiens theory, which held that the sapiens lineage constituted a phylum distinct from Neandertals and coeval to them, which found its roots in early or middle Paleolithic Europe.

Early Years. Vallois was born in 1889 in Nancy (a city of Lorraine that remained French after the annexation of that department by Germany in 1871) to Jean-Baptiste Léon Marie Vallois and Marie Madeleine Jeanne Letellier. He was six and a half years old when in 1895 his father, an obstetrician, was sent to Montpellier after his agrégation (high-level academic teaching competition) to become a professor of medicine. In Montpellier the young man followed in the steps of his father. After his primary and secondary education, he became a student at the young age of sixteen, at the faculty of Science and then at the faculty of Medicine of Montpellier. He studied medicine under the direction of Paul Gilis, and comparative anatomy with Louis Vialleton, a renown specialist of vertebrate morphology, particularly of the comparative anatomy of the limbs. In 1914, while he worked as a preparator in the comparative anatomy laboratory of the University of Montpellier, Vallois undertook to write a doctoral dissertation in medicine on the anatomy of the limbs.

Functional Anatomy. Vallois then moved to Paris to concentrate on his work on anthology, especially on the articulation of the human knee, basing his research on human locomotion upon a comparative study, conducted at the Muséum d’histoire naturelle (Museum of Natural History), of humans and other primates. In this work, Vallois attributed the anatomical features observed in the knee not to phylogeny, but to functional differences linked with specific modes of locomotion; thus, he stated, it is bipedalism that makes the human knee unique among primates. Vallois’s dissertation, published in 1914 as Étude anatomique de l’articulation du genou chez les Primates(Anatomical Study of the Articulation of the Primate Knee), is an authoritative, five-hundred-page volume, and several bone and ligament structures of the human knee are named after him.

During World War I, Vallois joined the army, where he served as a voluntary physician and received several medals and citations. In 1920, having passed his agrégation in anatomy, he was sent to the University of Toulouse where he obtained, at the young age of thirty-two, a chair in anatomy. There, he pursued his research on various human anatomical structures such as the diaphragmatic vertebra and the scapula. In 1926 he published a new edition of the volume of Poirier’s Treatise of Anatomy devoted to arthrology (Vallois, 1926). By then Vallois had become a renowned specialist in arthrology, but his research was to take another orientation.

Raciology. Since his youth, Vallois had been interested in anthropology. From its foundation in 1859, anthropology, which was then in France a prominent discipline with its renowned institutions and journals, attracted wide attention from the public. Based on a positivist attempt to describe and hierarchically classify human diversity, the methods of physical anthropology aimed to evaluate in qualitative as well as quantitative terms the relationship of the frequency and fluctuation of anatomical data to racial types.

As early as 1912 Vallois became a member of the prestigious Société d’anthropologie de Paris, the establishment of which, in 1859 by Paul Broca, marked the institutional start of physical anthropology in France. Upon his arrival at the Muséum d’histoire naturelle in 1918, Vallois met the young Raoul Anthony, who nourished his interest in physical anthropology. Following in the footsteps of such masters as Paul Broca, Léonce-Pierre Manouvrier, Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefages, Marcellin Boule, Paul Topinard, and René Verneau, Vallois naturally concentrated on the typology and classification of human races. His knowledge of several languages— German (in which he was fluent), Italian, and English— in conjunction with his many travels through Asia, Africa, and America—provided invaluable aid in his exploration of human varieties.

Rejecting the polygenism then still accepted by some anthropologists, Vallois argued that all humans originated from a common stock. In Les races humaines(1944), he defined races as “natural human groups, showing a number of hereditary physical common features, whatever their language, habits or citizenship” (p. 6). These racial features are anatomical, physiological, and pathological, as well as psychological characteristics. Armed with this taxonomic framework, the anthropologist can distinguish

great races [that] correspond to the fundamental divisions of mankind in our time. Their geographic localization is very marked. They have the value of real subspecies. … Among the races stricto sensu, the existence of …local types, also called subraces(Gautypen), may often be revealed by detailed analysis. …They are modifications of racial types in a set environment—seaside regions, mountainous regions, desert regions—modifications which one may equate with those of mammals living in the same environment.” (Vallois, 1953b, pp. 160–161)

Vallois’s classification thus identified four great racial categories, the Australoid, the Leucoderm, the Melanoderm, and the Xanthoderm, divided into twenty-seven races, characterized by such features as size, skin color, appearance of the hair, and head shape. All of his professional life, Vallois strove hard to achieve a thorough scientific description of human races, studying the population of France and then of Portugal, the African pygmies, and the populations of Congo, Cameroon, Madagascar, and Central Africa, traveling the world in search of lesser-known races that still needed to be identified and described.

Vallois’s great innovation was his attempt to introduce the serology of blood groups into the classification of human races and the understanding of their migrations. In his view the distribution of blood groups not only revealed genetic patterns but could also serve racial typologies; this could well be, he wrote in a 1953 article, “Race,” the only novelty that genetics had yet brought to anthropology. However, he added, definitions of human races solely based on blood groups would still be partial and unsatisfactory if they rejected what he called “the study of the phenotype,” that is, the descriptive classification of racial types. One can observe in the early twenty-first century that Vallois’ innovation was not of great use: If the distribution of blood groups in the human species is indeed recognized to follow a Mendelian pattern, concepts and methods of population genetics in the early 2000s invalidate any attempt to connect blood groups with typological racial categories.

Using the category “race” had never been, and was not especially during the first half of the twentieth century, devoid of acute strong sociopolitical and practical implications. In his 1944 treatise, Les races humaines, Vallois warned the reader to beware of several misunderstandings of the “race” category. Race, he said, does not correspond to “political organizations” such as states or nations. Moreover, Vallois rejected the idea of “pure races.” For example, he said, one should not speak of a “French race,” for there are at least three races in France. Similarly, Aryans are not a “pure race,” but a mixture of several, whose relationship with the Indo-European language is not clear. Also, he continued, races should not be mistaken for ethnic groups, linked by a common civilization and language:

From an anthropological point of view, Jews do not constitute a race. It is an ethnic group that, for more than 1500 years, was isolated in Palestine by its language, its religion and civilization, and was made out of two races: the anatolian race in its armenoid variety to the North, and the south oriental to the South. … Despite the dispersion of the Jews today, and their interbreeding with populations among which they lived, the features of both races generally persisted. The Armenoid type is particularly frequent among Askenazim. … The South oriental type is frequent among Sephardim. (1944, pp. 44–45)

Vallois is obviously being cautious here, but his definition of Jews as an “ethnic group” and his description of Jews’ physical types are not meant particularly to deter anti-Semitism. As early as 1933–1934 another physician, René Martial, anticipating the Vichy regime policy of épuration (purification), had written about “the Jewish ethnic group” and proposed to trace its members through the determination of blood groups.

Vallois in Wartime France. Between 1937 and 1944 Vallois accumulated an impressive number of key positions within the institutions of French anthropology. He had already been, since 1930 (thanks to the protection of Marcellin Boule), one of the directors of the journal L’anthopologie, a crucial position in the field. In the ensuing years, Vallois split his time between Toulouse (where he secured in 1933 the establishment of an anthropology laboratory at the École pratique des hautes études, and Paris, becoming active in the capital within prominent institutions of the discipline. In 1937 he became the general secretary of the Société d’anthropologie de Paris and the director of its Bulletins et mémoires. In 1939, after Raoul Anthony’s death, Vallois replaced him at the head of the Institut de paleontologie humaine, founded in 1910 by Albert Prince of Monaco. When the Vichy government fired the ethnologist Paul Rivet from Paris’s Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man) in 1941, Vallois took his place as a professor in ethnology and anthropology of modern and fossil humans of the Muséum d’histoire naturelle, and in the attached directorship of the Musée de l’homme.

At a time when many people were leaving Paris to go to southern France, which was free from German occupation, Vallois left Toulouse to settle in Paris. It is probably no coincidence that during these years he published his three major books on racial classifications: Les races de l’empire français (1939), Anthropologie de la population française(1943), and Les races humaines (1944), the latter of which went through many subsequent editions, well into the 1980s. Vallois remained, as has been seen, quite moderate and cautious in his racial descriptions, generally refraining from explicit judgments on racial purity or hierarchies. But his typological perspective and his willingness to consider psychological features in determining race probably helped to convince the French authorities that he was a more acceptable director for the Musée de l’homme than Rivet, an opponent to Petain’s policy and an activist in the Resistance. Vallois was in fact one of many French intellectuals who more or less acquiesced to the Vichy regime, but he never was suspected of collaboration; after Liberation, he was able to keep all the prestigious positions he had earned during the war and the Occupation, again replacing Rivet when he retired in 1951 after having retrieved his functions at the Musée de l’homme in 1945.

Personal ambition or opportunism are certainly insufficient to explain Vallois’s scientific interest in human races. In the early 1950s a group of experts at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published several statements on racial prejudices and racialism, declaring that “race is less a biological fact than a social myth. The myth of race has created an enormous amount of human and social damage. In recent years it has taken a heavy toll in human lives and caused untold suffering” (1950, pp. 138–139), While this made scientific discourse on race hard to sustain any longer, Vallois continued his works on racial typologies. His embarrassed attempt in 1953 to review the debates of his time on the idea of race and on racial classifications reveals not only his poor talent for theory; it also brings to light the considerable amount of criticism that was by then directed against racialist endeavors such as his.

Palaeoanthropology. Vallois’s scientific works explored yet another major field of anthropological research: the study of human fossils and the question of the origin and evolution of the hominid family. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the linear schemes of human evolution established by nineteenth century anthropologists such as Gabriel de Mortillet were strongly criticized by Marcellin Boule, who then became a major authority in the field. In Boule’s view, several hominid lineages went back to the early Palaeolithic and subsequently Presapiens coexisted with the brutish Neanderthals, whom the more evolved sapiens eventually slaughtered to extinction. Boule’s treatise, Les Hommes fossils, first published in 1921, became a cornerstone for the discipline of palaeoanthropology.

After Boule’s death in 1942, Vallois undertook to produce a new version of Les hommes fossiles. Remaining faithful to Boule’s ideas, his 1946 edition respected the letter and the ideas of his master, with Vallois taking the liberty only of adding a few chapters on recent paleontological finds from China, South Africa, and Palestine. Like Boule, Vallois accepted Eoanthropus dawsoni (Piltdown Man) as a valid taxon at a time when many anthropologists refused even to consider this problematical fossil, which was later identified as a fake. For Vallois, Piltdown Man was—along with the Swanscombe occipital found in England in 1936—a forerunner to modern humans, and the presapiens theory remained the basic framework for understanding the origin of modern humanity and the phylogenetic position of the Neanderthals.

In 1947 the discovery of a new hominid fossil in France was to provide, in Vallois’s eyes, additional evidence for the relevance of this theory. A skull cap and several fragments of another skull were found in the Fontéchevade Cave at Charentes, in stratigraphic association with a lower Paleolithic industry, Tayacian. The antiquity of the fossil, on the one hand, and the (presumed) “human” structure of its frontal bone on the other—which was absent on the fossils but was reconstructed by Vallois from anatomical inference—provided in his view a definitive proof of the existence of a presapiens lineage since the early Palaeolithic:

The interest of the Fontéchevade discovery is that it clarifies the problem. In contrast to earlier finds of human remains we have here, in effect, a specimen which is well dated and found in a stratigraphic context which allows of no dispute: this is the first time that man, certainly not Neanderthal although earlier than Neanderthals, has been found in Europe under such conditions [italics in original]. Now this type, as we have seen, taking all its characters together, aligns itself with the PiltdownSwanscombe forms. This confirms in turn the correctness of associating these two fossils themselves. And above all, it provides definite proof of the existence, parallel to the Neanderthal phylum but independent of it, of a human line of development with an upright forehead lacking in a torus. (Vallois, 1949, pp. 357–358)

After the Piltdown fossil was revealed in 1955 to be a forgery, the Fontéchevade fragmentary skulls remained, along with the Swanscombe occipital, the only evidence likely to fuel the presapiens theory. Unfortunately, in both cases the structure of the frontal bone—on which the whole argument rested—remained totally hypothetical.

By the mid-twentieth century, the question of the relationship between sapiens and Neanderthals had become a major issue in paleanthropological debates. In Vallois’s mind, the definitive proof for the coexistence of a presapiens lineage with the Neanderthal—and even the pre-Neanderthal—lineage was provided by another French find, a mandible found by Raoul Cammas in 1949 at Montmaurin in Haute-Garonne. For Vallois, the “primitive” features of the mandible allowed one to draw a single evolutionary line from the (early Paleolithic) Mauerjaw (from Germany) to the later Neanderthals via Montmaurin.

“The Montmaurin mandible,” Vallois writes, “dating either from the Riss-Wurm, or possibly the Mindel-Riss, interglacial, is of Neandertaloid morphology in the main, but in certain points of detail is closer to the Mauer jaw. Smaller but at the same time more massive than the mandibles of the true Neanderthals, it doubtless belonged to an individual of the Preneanderthaloid type” (1956, p. 319).

Consequently, Vallois refused on the one hand to view Neanderthals as ancestral to modern humans—an idea which, first advocated by Thomas Henry Huxley and Gabriel de Mortillet, was reframed in the mid-twentieth century as the “Neanderthal phase theory” under the authority of such anthropologists as Aleš Hrdlička and Franz Weidenreich. On the other hand, Vallois also rejected the position of Francis Clark Howell, who in 1951 argued that a branch of the Neanderthals could have evolved into modern Homo sapiens. For Vallois, all Neanderthals form a coherent type and are much too primitive to have been ancestral to modern humans. Presapiens, he believed, originated in Asia and came to western Europe from the East, first sporadically, then massively, to annihilate the Neanderthals:

Somewhere in the East, doubtless in Western Asia, and prior to the Würm, there must have existed Presapiens men who by gradual development became sapiens proper. … Under these circumstances one may suppose … that the Swanscombe and Fontéchevade men were emissaries of an Asiatic stock, coming into Europe during interglacial periods, which however were not able to maintain themselves here. … Reappearing with the second period of this glaciation, the descendants of the presapiens lost no time in taking a final revenge on their Mousterian conquerors. (1962, p. 495)

This scenario traces the common origin of both presapiens and pre-Neanderthals into the very deep past of the Pliocene era, at the very inception of the hominid family. Vallois’s ideas were supported in England by Arthur Keith and his follower, Louis Leakey. Like them, Vallois believed that brain expansion was the motor of human evolution, and that no fossil skull could be defined as human if its endocranial capacity was below the cerebral “threshold,” a minimal brain volume enabling engagement in genuine human thinking. For that reason, Vallois denied Australopithecines the status of hominids: “The Australopithecinae are a group of anthropoids in the process of evolving towards humanity, but which never crossed the ‘threshold’ to this condition and vanished without having become truly human. It cannot be denied that the fundamental human characteristic, that is the great development of the brain, the basis of all our psychological evolution, was never fulfilled in them” (Boule and Vallois, 1959, p. 231).

Above all, Vallois’s position was faithful to the conception of evolution as parallel lines of descent inspired by neo-Lamarckism. This idea was advocated in evolutionary theories that flourished during the first decades of the twentieth century in Europe and the United States—for example, in the works of Henry Fairfield Osborn and Charles Deperet:

It is now well established in fact that, in most vertebrates and notably in the mammals, the majority of groups branched out, almost from the moment of their origin, precociously provided with their essential characteristics, which proceeded to develop along parallel courses. This is called “bushlike” evolution, corresponding in general to the “adaptive radiation” of English-speaking authors. … An essential fact is the long parallel persistence of forms exhibiting very different degrees of evolution of which certain ones, were one not aware, might a priori be considered as descendant of others.” (Vallois, 1962, p. 498)

Seldom did Vallois evoke Darwin. When he wrote about selection he referred, rather, to the neo-Lamarckian idea of environmental selection theorized by the French naturalist Lucien Cuénot.

In a Dying Tradition. Having had a successful career, Vallois retired from most of his academic and scientific responsibilities between 1961 and 1970. Over a period of forty years, he reigned over French anthropology; published more than four hundred scientific papers and thirty books; cumulated the posts of director of the Musée de l’Homme, director of the anthropology laboratory at the École des hautes études, director of the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine, and general secretary of the Société d’anthropologie de Paris; and was responsible for the three most prominent French journals in the field. In 1952 he was elected a member of the prestigious Académie de médecine. Many of his scientific papers and books were published in English and other foreign languages, making his works and ideas internationally accessible.

However, early twenty-first century anthropology disregards much of Vallois’s ideas and writings. With regard to current science (and even, to some extent, to the science of his time), most of his ideas—his insistence on the importance of racial and typological classifications, his belief in the racial significance of blood groups, his reservations about the use of population genetics in anthropology, his support for the “presapiens” theory and the authenticity of the Piltdown fossil, his belief in the Asian origin of Homo sapiens, his statements on the phylogenetic position of the Neanderthals and of the Australopithecines, and his neo-Lamarckian philosophy of evolution—appear obsolete, if not totally wrong.

The fate of Vallois’s ideas and works parallels the fate of traditional physical anthropology in the twentieth century. Vallois never questioned the scientific framework of his masters’ thinking, which he preserved unchanged and perpetuated until the end of his life. But by the time Vallois became a prominent authority in French anthropology, the field had undergone major changes. The validity of its traditional methods and concepts had been jeopardized on at least three levels: on scientific grounds, by new orientations in cultural anthropology and by the introduction of population genetics and later of molecular biology in the study of living and fossil humans; on institutional grounds, by the dominance of U.S. science in the fields of biological anthropology and palaeoanthropology; and last but not least, on social, political, and even ethical grounds, by the horrors of World War II, which appeared to the whole world as being in part an ultimate consequence of the “science of race” that had its roots in nineteenth-century physical anthropology.

A brilliant anatomist, a physician who was highly conscious of his scientific and institutional authority, a positivist attached to “facts” more than to ideas, Vallois wanted to embody the grand tradition of French physical anthropology, a discipline—and perhaps a whole world vision—that collapsed in the middle of the twentieth century. Vallois’s career and works in anthropology sought to perpetuate, normalize, and institutionalize the frameworks of a decaying knowledge more than to open novel paths in scientific research. They belonged to a “normal” science (in the Kuhnian sense) at a time when it was deeply challenged in its sociological, institutional, conceptual, and methodological foundations.



Étude anatomique de l’articulation du genou chez les Primates. Montpellier, France: L’abeille, 1914.

Arthrologie. In Traité d’anatomie humaine, 4th. ed. Edited by P. Poirier and A. Charpy. Masson, Paris, 1926

Les races de l’empire français. Paris: La Presse MBdicale, 1940.

Anthropologie de la population française. Paris: Didier, 1943.

Les races humaines. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1944.

With Marcellin Boule. Les hommes fossiles: Eléments de paléontologie humaine, 3rd ed. Paris: Masson et Cie, 1946.

“The Fontéchevade Fossil Men.” American Journal of Anthropology 7, no. 3 (September 1949): 339–362.

With Hallam L. Movius, eds. Catalogue des hommes fossiles. Nineteenth International Geological Congress, Algiers, 1952. Mâcon, France: Protat Frères, 1953a.

“Race.” In Anthropology Today, edited by Alfred L. Kroeber. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1953b.

“Neanderthals and Praesapiens.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 84, nos. 1–2 (January–December 1954): 111–130.

“The Pre-mousterian Human Mandible from Montmaurin.”American Journal of Physical Anthropology 14 (1956): 319–323.

With Marcellin Boule. “Australopithecines.” In Human Evolution: Readings in Physical Anthropology, edited by Noel Korn and Harry Reece Smith. New York: Holt, 1959.

“The Origin of Homo sapiens.” In Ideas on Human Evolution: Selected Essays, 1949–1961, edited by William Howells. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.


Bocquet-Appel, Jean-Pierre. “Interview de Henri Victor Vallois, le 15 février 1981.” Bulletins et mémoires de la Société d’anthropologie de Paris 8, nos. 1–2 (1996): 81–103.

Cohen, Claudine. L’Homme des origines. Paris: Seuil, 1999. See chapter 2, “‘Seuils’ de l’humanité,” and chapter 6, “La notion de race en histoire des sciences.”

Delmas, André. “Eloge d’Henri Vallois.” Bulletin de l’Académie nationale de médecine 66, no. 3 (March 1982): 303–312. Hublin, Jean-Jacques. “Vallois, Henri Victor (1889–1981).” In

History of Physical Anthropology, edited by Frank Spencer. Vol. 2. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

UNESCO. “The Race Question,” July 18th, 1950; published in Man 50 (October 1950): 138–139. Written by a group of experts under the direction of Ashley Montagu.

Claudine Cohen

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