Gabriel de Mortillet, born on August 29, 1821 in Meylan (Isère) and died on September 25, 1898 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, is a French prehistorian of the nineteenth century. He played a major role in the development of the first chronology of Prehistory.
He was mayor of Saint-Germain-en-Laye from 1882 to 1888 and deputy of Seine-et-Oise from 1885 to 1889.
His older brother, Paul de Mortillet (1820-1893), a botanist, introduced the Japanese persimmon to France.
Louis Laurent Gabriel de Mortillet was the son of Claude Romain Gallix de Mortillet, a cavalry officer, a lover of natural history and archaeology, who was ennobled by Charles X in 1825, and Adélaïde de Bernon de Montélégier. The family gave up the patronymic Gallix, and was only called de Mortillet.
He was educated by the Jesuits, which affected him to the point of arousing in him a very anti-clerical thought. Very early on, he took part in militant actions by writing articles in the newspaper opposing the regime of the Second Republic, the Revue indépendante, a weekly of which he was the editor, as well as several articles in other weeklies with socialist tendencies. Gabriel de Mortillet”s partisan action in the 1848 Revolution in favor of the socialist camp led him to be condemned to exile in 1849, under the Second Republic presided over by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. He took refuge in Switzerland.
Archaeologist in Italy
In 1856, his skills as an engineer and geologist were required in Italy and Mortillet undertook, along with a team of project managers, the construction of the railway line connecting the Lombardy region to the Veneto region. Living in Peschiera del Garda, he participated in the exploration of the Lombardy lakes and discovered the first Italian Neolithic site at Isolino, near Lake Maggiore, in the Italian province of Varese, in 1863.
In 1864, he created a new journal, Matériaux pour l”histoire positive et philosophique de l”homme (Materials for the positive and philosophical history of man), which would become Matériaux pour l”histoire naturelle et primitive de l”homme.
One of his main interests in the field of archaeology was the discovery made in 1822 by Abbot Giovanni Baptista Giani of the Golasecca culture, an archaeological culture attributed to Celto-Italian populations of the 1st and 2nd Iron Ages and covering Lombardy and part of the northern Italian region of Piedmont and southern Ticino in Switzerland. Although he was less present on site than his counterpart Alexandre Bertrand, he made several trips to northern Italian archaeological sites. He brought back a substantial part of the collection of the abbot Giani for the museum of the national antiquities and contributed to the elaboration of a more thorough chronology of the culture of Golasecca. In 1865 he published a monograph listing all the archaeological reports made on this subject since 1824, followed by his own analyses.
Curator in Saint-Germain-en-Laye
In 1865-66, he participated in the creation of the International Congresses of Prehistoric Anthropology and Archaeology. In 1867, he organized the prehistoric section of the exhibition L”histoire du travail (History of work) for the Paris World Fair. He became successively attached to the museums of Annecy, then in 1868, on the recommendation of Edouard Lartet, he became attached to the conservation of the new Museum of National Archaeology located in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, of which he was later promoted to vice-curator general. He was in charge of classifying and establishing cultural typologies as well as chronological series of Stone Age tools, from museographic materials considerably enriched in 1865 by the donation of the collections of Jacques Boucher de Perthes. A lasting conflict opposed him to the curator, the Hellenist Alexandre Bertrand.
One of his main works is Le Préhistorique, antiquité de l”homme, published in 1883 and illustrated by his son Adrien de Mortillet.
His main contribution to science is the classification and nomenclature of the major periods of the Paleolithic. In 1872, he proposed a first chronology dividing prehistory into 14 periods, based on the type of tools produced by man:
If several of these denominations are still used today, Mortillet”s main mistake is to grant them a universal value, each one being considered as a stage through which the whole of humanity had to pass. All human societies would have evolved everywhere in the world in the same way.
Furthermore, Mortillet makes a chronological error about the Aurignacian. Considering that bone tools are rare in the Solutrean, present in the Aurignacian and very elaborate in the Magdalenian, he describes the Aurignacian as a transitional phase between the Solutrean and Magdalenian. At the beginning of the 20th century, the work of Abbé Breuil restored the Aurignacian to its exact chronostratigraphic position, prior to the Solutrean and Magdalenian.
Gabriel de Mortillet was resolutely skeptical about the antiquity of cave art and the first burials. Until the end, he refused to admit that the man of the Upper Paleolithic could bury his dead and practice a parietal art (even if he admitted the authenticity of the furniture art, considered as naive, clumsy or awkward). Such complex practices could not be contemporary with primitive carved stone industries, and the evolution of art, spirituality and technique were necessarily linked. A convinced materialist, he considered prehistoric art to be “art for art”s sake”, with no connection to spirituality, coming into conflict with spiritualists.
He died in 1898 before seeing this vision completely collapse, in particular before his friend Émile Cartailhac made his mea culpa and recognized the authenticity of the paintings of the Altamira cave, in August 1902, at the Congress of the French Association for the Advancement of Science. After his death, his ideas were still defended by some, including his sons or J. Leroy, with very limited success given the accumulation of evidence to the contrary.