New Advances in French Prehistory

By Audouze, F. | Antiquity, March 1999 | Go to article overview

New Advances in French Prehistory

Audouze, F., Antiquity


The study of technology is long-standing in France, with its roots in the Enlightenment. Since then, French technological studies have exhibited divergent characteristics: a search for universal principles and a deep interest in the material and physical details of technology, the role of the craftsman and his skill. Technology is considered a mediator between Nature and Culture, material and social. The 1950s were marked by a renewal of this debate mainly through the work of two social anthopologists (Leroi-Gourhan and Haudricourt), a historian (Gilles) and a philosopher of technology (Simondon). All looked for general principles in order to explain the evolution of technology and its place in society. Apart from Haudricourt, who emphasized social relations, all stressed the autonomy of the technical realm and its quasi-biological development. It took decades to implement these innovative approaches. The researches of Boris Valentin and Eric Boeda represent the most recent outcome of these technological trends.

In the last five years the expression 'chaine operatoire' has become more familiar to the English-speaking reader through the translation of Leroi-Gourhan's Le geste et la parole and the papers of Schlanger (1990), Lemonnier (1992) and others. But why does this concept take up so much space in the French prehistoric literature and why are state-of-the-art Palaeolithic studies in France still based on it? The answer lies in two factors which deeply influenced the evolution of research. One is the efficiency of the chaine operatoire as an analytical tool, which makes it as basic in prehistoric technology as elementary analysis is in chemistry. The other is related to the system of values prevailing in prehistoric research where positive results are more valued than negative, and opposition to previous works is not required. Because of this, French prehistorians have been more inclined to deepen the technology field and 'identify the virtually included tendencies' (Martinelli 1988) in Leroi-Gourhan's texts rather than developing other directions.

Building: the proper use of tradition

Boeda's and Valentin's approaches are built upon two bodies of concepts developed over the last 40 years in social anthropology, philosophy of science and prehistory, but only in the 1980s and 1990s has co-operation between different schools of thought permitted their integration into coherent systems. The chaine operatoire concept holds a central position, its development strongly affected by the way it was created by Leroi-Gourhan. His major works - L'Homme et la matiere (1943 & 1944), still unpublished in English, and Le geste et la parole (1964 & 1965) published in English in 1993 - opened so many new paths, sometimes in a few sentences and without further development, that even analysis of technical acts as social products can justifiably be considered to derive from his thinking. Probably because of this profusion of new concepts and theories, his students were left with a large choice of (sometimes contradictory) approaches and there was no need to oppose previous theories in order to be innovative, nor to adopt all of the master's theories. Most of Leroi-Gourhan's students have thus chosen to develop one path or another and to enrich with new concepts the body of theories deriving from Leroi-Gourhan's work without claiming to be building theory.

An implicit ban on epistemology

Leroi-Gourhan was very mistrustful of epistemology and was reluctant, if not opposed, to explaining his concepts and their origin. He preferred to describe how they functioned. The only sentence in which he describes the chaine

operatoire is quite typical in this respect (Leroi-Gourhan 1993:114, with developments 130-34):

Techniques are at the same time gestures and tools, organized in sequences by a true syntax which gives the operational series both their stability and their flexibility. …

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New Advances in French Prehistory


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