The “Pope of Prehistory” L’abbe´ Breuil

L’abbé Henri Breuil en visite sur un chantier de fouilles près de Mons le 19 février 1954.

The Master Thinker: L’abbé Henri Breuil (Fig. 1) was a French “master thinker” avant la lettre, which played an eminent role during the 20th century in the Archaeological discourse in France. As the “pope of Prehistory”- he spoke “ex cathedra” –  an apodictic stance that did not miss its effect.

Breuil’s accomplishments involve little excavation. He made his reputation by vanquishing the followers of Gabriel de Mortillet—the materialist anticlerical radical who dominated the early years of prehistoric research in France—in the “Battaille Aurignacienne,” where stratigraphic evidence was mobilized as the basis of Upper Paleolithic chronology. He suggested the Aurignacian as a homogeneous and exogenous culture, coming from the east. Anyhow, Garrod and others showed some decennia later, that  it is neither a homogeneous technocomplex nor can its origin localized.

Breuil never generated high-quality stratigraphic observations, instead he used biased observations made by other to generate a framework, which in large parts was falsified by scientists of the next generation.

The works of Breuil stand as a somewhat confusing corpus of work, with different methods, theories and lines of evidence. The roots of French Paleolithic archaeology lay in Geology and the Natural Sciences, and it comes as no surprise to find that Breuil and others treated niveaux (levels) and couches (layers) as de facto proxies for phases of occupation (and thus representing successions of different cultural entities).

He saw archaeological artifacts evolve like organisms in a Lamarckian way, ever striving for improvement. Darwinian evolutionary thinking was clearly not in the focus of early French prehistorians, including  L’abbe´ Breuil

„Cave Art“ : Without any question, the French priest and archeologist was the dominant figure in the history of „cave art“ Interpretation. He became interested in this topic  in 1900, at the age of 23, and only one year later had already discovered two previously unknown sites.

Appointed professor of archaeology at the College de France in 1929, he was notified immediately when the cave at Lascaux (Fig. 2 Breuil at Lascaux soon after the discovery; Wikipedia open source) was discovered in 1940, and soon became the world’s foremost authority concerning it. For 61 years, he studied painted caves all over the world, spending, by his own calculation, a net total of seven years in field work underground. In 1952, he published the extraordinary 400 Years of Cave Art, a definitive and beautifully illustrated treatment of the „art“ of 92 caves.

Considering Breuil’s dominant position in the field until his death in 1961, it is not surprising that his general interpretation of the meaning of „cave art“ was widely adopted by experts and lay people alike. Breuil argued that the origin of the paintings and engravings lay in sympathetic magic ensuring a successful kill. He suggested that these magic practices and the cave art in general had religious roots and meaning.

Other aspects of parietal and mobile art were a priori not considered by him. It is a pity that after a short structuralist phase of the interpretation of „cave art“ the discourse turned back again to explicite  religious explanations- now the shamanistic aspect became the master narrative in mainstream archaeology.

Politically he acted very defensively. Although Breuil had affinities to the “modernists” in the Catholic Church he avoided any discussion with his church although faced by his profession with the obvious discrepancy between faith and sience.

Global Prehistory: Breuil, and that is his greatest legacy, opened the local French Prehistory to a global Approach by including other European countries (Austria, Interwar Czechoslovakia and Spain and Portugal), China and Parts of Africa into a broader synthesis. His scholar Dorothy Garrod remains the most influential scientist in the establishment of a broad and still valid framework of the Paleolithic in the Near east. Hi great experience helped other archaeologists to  bring their findings into a reference frame for a more adequate interpretations (Fig 3: from H. Breuil: Notes de voyage paleolithique en Europe Centrale. L’Anthropologie. XXXIV; “Aurignacian moyen” -today Gravettian- of Willendorf and Predmost).


What remains unknown: Breuil remained a child of his time. He conserved eclectic theories that came from the 19th century, which were  already outdated after the Great war. He considered  him self as the  most important expert in Paleolithic studies  and rarely appreciated more evidence based theories beyond his culture -historic approaches, that would only become important  after his dead.

Was he wise not looking for trouble with his own church and avoiding any open discussions about Fascism and Vichy France?- or was he only an opportunistic coward in this respect?

Although some Biographies about Breuil have been written we still wait for a work that allows a critical re-evaluation of Breuil and his time within his scientific, political and historical context.

The Problem with analogies: Breuil loved analogies.According to him there was a continuous evolution of backed tools: Abri Audit knives, Châtelperron Points, Gravette Points, followed by microlithic points. In reality there is no such evolution and a clear break between Châtelperron Points (ca 40 k.a. Cal BP) and Gravette Points (ca 30 k.a. Cal BP) first noted by D. Garrod. If there is an evolution of Abri Audit points toChâtelperron Points remains dubious, although such a link is a current paradigm for most scientists.

Fig. 4 From my personal copy of: Breuil Les subdivisions du paléolithique supérieur et leur signification (1913).

Biographies about Henry Breuil:

Broderick, Alan Houghton. Father of Prehistory, 1963

Hurel A: L’Abbé Breuil. Un préhistorien dans le siècle, 2014

Collective: Sur les chemins de la préhistoire : L’abbé Breuil du Périgord à l’Afrique du Sud, 2006












About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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