Rivet, Paul

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Rivet, Paul



Paul Rivet, French ethnologist and Americanist, was born at Wassigny, in the Ardennes, in 1876 and died in Paris in 1958. He studied medicine at the Faculty of Medicine and the École du Service de Santé Militaire of Lyons, where he obtained the degree of doctor of medicine in 1898. In 1901 he was attached to the scientific mission of General Bourgeois, which was sent to Ecuador to verify certain terrestrial measurements made at the end of the eighteenth century by Pierre Bouguer, Louis Godin, and Charles Marie de La Condamine. After the mission returned, Rivet stayed on for six years, studying the populations of the high valleys of the Andes. From that time on, he devoted himself to anthropological and linguistic researches.

When Rivet returned to France, the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle engaged him to classify and study the collections of anthropological and linguistic documents that he brought back (1912–1922). He became an assistant to René Verneau, who held the chair of anthropology at the museum, and then assistant director of the laboratory, a post he held until he was himself appointed to the chair of anthropology in 1928. The focus of his interest was the geology, geography, and linguistics of the Americas. He organized weekly meetings at his home, at which both French and foreign scientists presented and discussed the results of their work on the Americas; these meetings continued for fifty years, interrupted only by two world wars.

In 1926 Rivet took part in creating the Institut d’Ethnologie of the University of Paris, where he helped to train a great many French and foreign ethnologists. He took over the chair of anthropology of the Museée National d’Histoire Naturelle in 1928 and later succeeded in having one wing of the new Palais de Chaillot allotted to an ethnographical museum, eventually transforming this museum into the great Musée de l’Homme, famous for its fossil-man collections. In 1942 he was welcomed to Colombia by President Eduardo Santos and there founded the Colombian Institute of Ethnology and set up a Musée de l’Homme in Bogotá that was modeled on the one in Paris. After a period in Mexico as cultural delegate of Free France, Rivet resumed, in 1945, his chairs at the museum and the Institut d’Ethnologie, as well as the directorship of the Musée de l’Homme. He also continued his research in South America and sparked the activities of the Société des Américanistes in Paris.

The basic concept of Rivet’s extensive work is the notion that there is “a real interdependence, however hard it may sometimes be to prove it, among linguistics, ethnology, and [physical] anthropology” (1927, p. 14). In tracing the origins of American aboriginals, therefore, he compared anthropometric studies of fossils with those made on living peoples; he also studied distributions of cultural elements, such as language, religion, music, games, weapons, household furnishings, and tools, as well as of blood groups and pathologies. Combining these studies with the results of research done by others, he developed his central thesis—that the peopling of America did not derive exclusively from Asia. In opposition to Hrdlička’s theory that the population of America came only from Asia, via the Bering Strait, the Aleutians, and the northwest, a theory that at that time still had considerable support, Rivet believed that two other sources also contributed to the peopling of South America. He did not deny that the major part of the population had come from Asia but insisted that there had been migrations (1) from Australia, dating back at least six thousand years, and (2) from Melanesia, at a later but still ancient period. The migration from Australia must have followed the shores of the Antarctic, making use of the chains of islands that bind that continent to Australia on the one hand and to America on the other ([1943] 1957, p. 24; 1956). The Melanesian migration, he believed, took place in a succession of waves, by the maritime route of the South Pacific. In his publications on this subject, Rivet presented not only the anthropological, linguistic, and other evidence for his theory about these migrations but also described the similarities between the primitive populations of South America and Oceania that initially led him to formulate it.

In his linguistic work he pointed out many relationships of a fairly narrow scope, almost always with great reliability. His contribution in providing considerable data on otherwise unknown languages was also considerable.

Raymond Ronze

[For the historical context of Rivet’s work, see the biography ofHrdlicka. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeDiffusion, article oncultural diffusion.]


1912 Entente Internationale pour l’unification des mesures anthropometriques sur le vivant. Anthropologie (Paris) 23:623–627.

1912–1922 Verneau, Rene; and Rivet, Paul Ethnographic ancienne de l’Équateur. 2 parts. France, Service Géographique de f Armée, Mission …pour la mesure d’un arc de méridien ້quatorial en Amérique du Sud …1889–1906 6: parts 1–2.

1924 Les Mélanéso-Polynésiens et les Australiens en Amérique. Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Paris, Comptes rendus des seancés [1924]: 335–342.

1925 Les origines de l’homme américain. Anthropologie (Paris) 35:293–319.

1926 Le peuplement de l’Amérique précolombienne. Sci-entia: Rivista di scienza 40:89–100.

1927 Titres et travaux scientifiques de P. Rivet. M (France): Protat.

(1943) 1957 Les origines de l’homme américain. Paris:

Gallimard. 1956 Early Contacts Between Polynesia and America.

Diogenes 16:78–92.


Carter, George F. 1957 The American Civilization Puzzle. Johns Hopkins Magazine 8, no. 5:8–11, 21–24.

Hrdlička, AleŠ 1917a The Genesis of the American Indian. Pages 559–568 in International Congress of Americanists, Nineteenth, Washington, 1915, Proceedings. Washington: The Congress.

Hrdlička, AleŠ 1917b The Old White American. Pages 582–601 in International Congress of Americanists, Nineteenth, Washington, 1915, Proceedings. Washington: The Congress.

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