Henri (known as Abbé) Breuil began his lifetime study of prehistory when, toward the end of the 19th century, this young discipline developed a systematic methodology and established itself on a scientific foundation. According to all accounts, Henri Breuil was one of the great pioneers of prehistory, perhaps even the “father of prehistory” (as the title of Broderick’s biography suggests). He possessed a rare combination of skills, energy, and curiosity. These traits and an excellent education—through classroom, laboratory, and fieldwork experiences—enabled Breuil to make significant contributions to archaeology, ethnology, and paleontology. He was an incessant traveler and visited most of the sites where important discoveries were made; his advice was eagerly sought and his opinions were regarded as authoritative, especially in matters related to prehistoric chronology, stone tools, and cave art. Breuil made many friends and advanced the careers of young scholars; he published more than 800 items, some of which remain classics in academic fields that are constantly advancing. It is reasonable to assert that no single scholar had an impact on the study of prehistory equal to that of Abbé Breuil. To fully appreciate his accomplishments, however, it is necessary to understand them in their context and identify the factors that came together to make such a full and productive life possible.
Henri Édouard Prosper Breuil was born in Normandy in 1877, but he grew up in Clermont. He showed no particular talent in his early education but was interested in nature and especially insects. Young Henri suffered from poor health, but he had a strong interest in nature. The powers of observation that he developed exploring the countryside as a child, especially during a year-long sabbatical (1894-1895) that he took to improve his health, served Breuil well. Until late in life, this diminutive scholar spent prolonged periods of time below ground studying cave art and traipsed all over the Old World to visit and explore sites in China and numerous countries in Africa and Europe (especially France and Spain). Perhaps it was the sabbatical that gave Breuil occasion to think about his vocation, the choice to become a priest and a scientist; he entered the seminary at Issy-les-Moulineaux in 1895, which preceded his move to Saint-Sulpice Seminary (Paris) in 1897.
Meanwhile, Breuil had become acquainted with Geoffroy d’Ault du Mesnil, a geologist and archaeologist who explored the Somme Valley and helped spark the young seminarian’s interest in the study of prehistory; this was one of several noteworthy scientists— including priests who were also scientists—who influenced his choice of scholarly pursuits. At Issy, it was the Abbé Guibert (with his background in natural history and evolutionary theory) who encouraged Breuil to study prehistory. As Broderick notes, Guibert taught these subjects before Teilhard de Chardin was born; the latter, a Jesuit who later became a friend and colleague of Breuil, was famous—or infamous—for his views. While at Issy, Breuil also met Jean Bouyssonie, who was part of the team that discovered Neadertal fossils at La Chapelle-aux-Saints. Meanwhile, Joseph-Louis Capitan, a student of Gabriel de Mortillet, stimulated Breuil’s interest in the typology of flint tools, a field that he later mastered. During his stay at Saint-Sulpice, Breuil also registered as a science student at the University of Paris, and in 1897, he began to travel widely in France to see important rock overhangs and caves with prehistoric remains. One of his traveling companions was Édouard Piette, an archaeologist whose own research on Magdalenian art and artifacts captivated Breuil’s imagination.
The budding prehistorian was ordained as a priest in the Church of Saint-Sulpice in 1900, but Abbé Breuil received a dispensation that relieved him from the normal duties of a parish clergyman. His twofold preparation continued as he graduated from the University of Paris in 1903—where studies included geology, geography, and physiology. Though Breuil did not pursue the normal activities of a priest, he melded his faith and theological education with his multifaceted anthropological research into one seamless pursuit and a lifelong identity. Even before he became a privat-docent at the Catholic University of Fribourg, in Switzerland (beginning in 1905), Breuil had begun to refine the classification system of prehistoric Europe’s lithic and bone industries. One of his major contributions in this regard was the demonstration that the Aurignacian culture predated the Solutrean. He presented stratigraphie evidence for this sequence at a 1912 conference in Geneva; Breuil’s paper on “Les subdivisions du paléolithique supérieure et leur signification” is still consulted, even though more recent research has modified his conclusions.
Abbé Breuil’s name is forever linked with famous sites and fellow scientists and with his identity as a priest and prehistorian, but his work was made possible through his association with a number of institutions. His teaching at Fribourg was already mentioned, but this was the first in a series of academic bases and sources of funding for his travel and research. Breuil had a useful friendship with Prince Albert of Monaco, who expressed special interest in Breuil’s work on the paintings at Covalanas and Altamira. When Prince Albert established the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine (Paris), in 1910, he offered Breuil a professorial post. At the same time, he worked at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (also in Paris); col-leagues in these research centers included Marcellin Boule and Teilhard de Chardin (who joined Breuil on his expedition to Castillo Cave in 1913). In 1929, he was appointed as the first professor of prehistory at the College of France, a position he held until retirement in 1946. During World War II, Breuil also taught at the University of Lisbon and the University of Witwatersrand.
When Breuil was a still a small boy, and during the years of his theological and scientific education, very important discoveries were made in southwestern France and northern Spain (Cantabria). It was during this time that explorers and academics began to document caves that contained wall paintings and engravings from the Upper Paleolithic, including those at Altamira, Font de Gaume, Les Combarelles, and La Mouthe. Breuil applied his powers of observation and remarkable skills as an artist to the study of cave art for approximately 50 years; he is especially known for his work on wall paintings at Les Trois-Freres and Lascaux (in France) and the “White Lady of the Brandberg” (in Namibia), among others. Over the course of his lifetime, he spent the equivalent of many months in scores of decorated subterranean chambers; one of his most famous books, Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art, is a reflection of his expertise and enthusiasm for this subject. This special interest—or obsession—led Breuil to visit all such caves in France and most of the important sites in other countries where ancient artists left their mark. Initially, of course, he had to convince his contemporaries that these beautiful paintings were done by Stone Age artists. He also worked out a sequence of styles for wall paintings and other sculptured and engraved art, though many of these theories have been abandoned. The modern reader must recall that a great deal of this work was carried out and sweeping formulations proposed before radiocarbon dating was known. Breuil’s interpretation of the purpose of these Paleolithic paintings is especially significant. He believed that they served a magical purpose and were originally created to guarantee success on the hunt (i.e., “sympathetic magic”). Other proposals have been made in more recent years, but the opinion of a scholar who knew these paintings so intimately still carries weight in this ongoing debate.
Though it is not as important as his work on the classification of Paleolithic artifacts and his study of cave art, Henri Breuil is also known for his study of human paleontology. Along with Boule, he was involved in the controversies surrounding the so-called Piltdown man and followed all of the discoveries that related to the debate on human origins. Breuil knew most of the experts in this field of research and visited their sites and/or laboratories—and took a special interest in stone tools associated with these finds (Broom in Pretoria, Dart in Johannesburg, Leakey in Nairobi). Because of the work of Davidson Black and Teilhard de Chardin, he visited China to see the site of Zhoukoutian and the remains of Peking man.
Abbé Breuil worked right up to the end of his life. Fortunately, this “pioneer of prehistory” left behind a great legacy of publications and tracings of cave paintings. Much of his research has stood the test of time, though the field of prehistoric archaeology has moved beyond Breuil in many ways. He died at his country home near Paris in 1961, but his genius and influence are still recognized today.
- Breuil, H. (1965). The men of the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic & Mesolithic). New York: St. Martin’s. Original work published 1951.
- Breuil, H. (1979). Four hundred centuries of cave art. New York: Hacker Art Books. (Original work published 1952)
- Broderick, A. H. (1963). Father ofprehistory-The Abbé Henri Breuil: His life and times. New York: William Morrow.
- Perello, E. R. (1995). El Abate Henri Breuil (1877-1961). Madrid, Spain: Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia.