Jacques Boucher de Perthes (1788-1868) was a French archaeologist and writer who revolutionized archaeology by pioneering the notion of prehistory. He discovered evidence that humans had existed far earlier in time than had been previously thought.
Boucher de Perthes was a French customs official by profession and a geologist by hobby when he made his groundbreaking discovery. During the 1830s and 1840s he explored and excavated sites in the Somme Valley near Abbeville, France. At a site named Moulin-Quignon he found humanmade tools and pottery alongside extinct elephant and rhinoceros remains. He concluded that because the tools and bones lay together in the same layer of the earth, they were most likely from the same period of time. Perthes collected and studied the tools, which included bifaced “hand-axes.” In 1847 he published the first volume of his three- volume work, Celtic and Diluvian Antiquities, in which he detailed his findings along with illustrations. Perthes claimed that the tools were made by Celts before the cataclysm of the biblical flood. Scientists did not take Boucher de Perthes’s discoveries seriously at the time. It was not until the late 1850s that notable geologists, including Sir Charles Lyell and members of the Geological Society of London, visited his excavations and verified the discovery.
Jacques Boucher de Crevecreur de Perthes was born into an aristocratic French family that claimed descent from the family of Joan of Arc on his mother’s side. Born to wealth, he was able to devote much free time to study and writing on a variety of subjects, including literature and politics. He also wrote plays that never sold. Perthes traveled extensively and was a social activist for the poor throughout his life. In 1825 he was appointed director of the Abbeville customs office, a position formerly held by his father.
Boucher de Perthes’s discovery had immense implications for humans’ perception of time. He refuted the long-held notion that humanity was created only 6,000 years earlier, or 4004 BCE, a date notably argued by Archbishop Ussher. He established the concept that humanity, and the earth itself, dated far earlier in time than had been previously believed. Gradually he was acknowledged as the founder of prehistoric archaeology. Boucher de Perthes’s assertions were largely reinforced with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species in 1859. Darwin famously established that organisms evolve over a very long period of time through the process of natural selection.
In 1863, a human jaw was found by a worker at the excavation site known as Moulin-Quignon in France. After careful examination by French and British anthropologists, the jaw was authenticated and appeared to further vindicate Boucher de Perthes. However the “Moulin-Quignon jaw” proved to be a fraud arranged by a worker who was motivated by a reward of 200 francs. The hoax did not damage Boucher de Perthes’s reputation. In 1864 Napoleon III honored him with the medal of Officier de la Legion d’ Honneur for his contributions to science. Boucher de Perthes died in Abbeville, France, in 1868.
Brodrick, A. (1963). Father of prehistory: The Abbe Henri Breuil. New York: Morrow.
MacCurdy, G. G. (1924). Human origins. New York: D. Appleton and Company.
Van Riper, A. B. (1993). Men among the mammoths: victorian science and the discovery of human prehistory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.