Paris Before Man

Pierre Boitard

"The first prehistoric novel"

Pursuing my interest in the history of the prehistoric novel, I have found occasional reference to Pierre Boitard's Paris avant les hommesParis before Man, published in France in 1861, "the first prehistoric novel." It is in French, and nearly 150 years old, a relatively rare book. It is not so easy to locate a copy, and so I've had to accept the published accounts and leave it at that.

Below are the four principle references to it I've found. Pringle merely gives a comment in passing that it may have been the first of the genre. Angenot calls it "the first Darwinian narrative" in which "pre-historical ape-man makes his appearance", and Angenot and Khouri tells us some background information on the book and author. Lastly, Bob O'Hara quotes from Martin Rudwick's book Scenes From Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World, which contains a large section on Boitard.

But now, I have finally located a copy of the book, and I have here reproduced two chapters, both in the original French and in my translation, so that the interested reader may better understand the kind of book Boitard's was.

Chapter 1 sets up the premise of the book, a magical guided tour of Earth's earliest past and its development up to the appearance of primitive man, given to a naturalist by an obliging demon. The second chapter reproduced here is actually the last (of the main section of the book), "Fifth Epoch of the Fifth Paleontological Period - Modern Earth - Anthropic Period," the one in which primitive man makes his appearance, and the magical tour is ended.

Although it is by nature fictional, it is not a novel. Rather it is an early 19th century attempt to describe scientifically the development of the earth in what will be called "Darwinian" terms (Boitard died the year Origin of Species was published), but set within a framework of fantasy, no doubt so that the religio-scientific establishment of the time was not unduly offended.


David Pringle, in his introduction to the 1999 Pulp Fictions UK edition of Rider Hagard's Allan & the Ice-Gods, discusses the development of (English) prehistoric fiction:

... One of the new sub-genres which arose in that period [from the 1880s to the First World War] was the tale of prehistory, the adventure story set in the remotest conceivable human past. ... imaginative responses ... to the 19th-century discovery of fossilized hominid remains, such as the famous Neanderthal Man, and to the new biology of evolution by Natural Selection, as expounded by Charles Darwin. ... the pre-historical romance - inspired more by the sciences of archaeology and paleontology than by any written records ... was a new thing in the late 19th century.
There were French-language precedents ... an 1861 novel called Paris avant les hommes (Paris Before Men) by Pierre Boitard seems to have been the first ...

Marc Angenot, in Science Fiction in France before Verne (Science Fiction Studies # 14 = Volume 5, Part 1 = March 1978, translated by J.M. Gouanvic and D. Suvin), wrote:

In 1839, 25 years before Verne, Pierre Boitard published the first story of adventure and scientific popularization for young people: Etudes astronomiques. This work depicts a voyage through the solar system, with the beings of each of the planets representing a stage of evolution: orang-outangs endowed with speech; fossil men (expressly named as such); humanoids on Mars analogous to the African Black; and modern men on Jupiter dressed as Romans. That was in 1839, in a Christian review for families! Thus highly audacious SF appears in the most unexpected institutions, to disappear soon after. (Two years after his death, Boitard's Paris avant les hommes [1861] was published; it is the first Darwinian narrative, and in it the pre-historical ape-man makes his appearance.) ...

In the Introduction to Angenot and Nadia Khouri's An International Bibliography of Prehistoric Fiction (Science-Fiction Studies #23 = Volume 8, Part 1 = March, 1981 p.38-53, ©SFS Publications, 1981), they wrote:

The odd fact concerning these narratives about ambiguous humanoids is that they appeared much earlier than the Darwinian dispute and the polemics on the simian genesis of man. Fiction here had indeed preceded scientific statements, as though the social imagination had intuitively apprehended - with unease and embarrassment, yet always with fascination - man as a "successful" monkey, or else the ape as an unfortunate cousin of man. No matter what power religious authority may have exerted in curbing some of the most audacious assertions about the origins of man, fiction still remained the field where almost anything could be safely asserted, without being attacked for systematizing scientific beliefs. Thus the French popularizer Pierre Boitard produced his Paris avant les hommes (ca. 1859) well before the emergence of human palaeontology. This book, written for a teenage public and offered as a prize to proficient schoolboys, contains a fanciful description of the ape-like ancestor of the modern Parisian. This "knowledge" which was already there before science actually institutionalized and normalized it, opens up an important question regarding the role of fiction within the history of ideas. Furthermore, the simian origin of man had already been narrated in the guise of satirical conjecture as far back as the 18th century.

And here is Bob O'Hara's relevant October 1993 posting to his Darwin-L list:

Date: Wed, 27 Oct 1993 22:29:23 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Cavemen in Rudwick's _Scenes From Deep Time_ (1992)
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

People interested in the history of the "caveman" idea might find some interesting material in Martin Rudwick's very beautiful new book Scenes From Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). Rudwick is a leading historian of geology, and this book is a handsomely produced album of illustrations and text passages on the early attempts to depict the prehistoric earth. Most date from the early and mid-1800s and show plesiosaurs, pterodactyls, and the like, but there are several early illustrations of prehistoric humans as well, including an archetypal "caveman" taken from Pierre Boitard's Paris before Men (1861). I append here Rudwick's description of this figure, and the delightfully lurid passage he quotes from Boitard about travelling back in time and entering the cave itself while the cavemen are asleep.

Here is Rudwick (pp. 166-169):

"Jacques Boucher de Perthes (1788-1868)...had long claimed to have found chipped flint implements of apparently human workmanship in direct association with the familiar bones and teeth of mammoths and other extinct mammals....

"Such claims were first given pictorial expression in a popular book entitled Paris before Men (Paris avant les hommes, 1861). This was a posthumous publication by the French botanist and geologist Pierre Boitard (1789-1859). In order to introduce his readers to the idea of deep time, Boitard uses the literary device of an explicitly magical or fairy-tale character. He conjures up Asmodee, the lame demon (la diable bioteux - in French a nice pun on his own name), whom he borrows from Le Sage's classic novel of that name (1707), to conduct him on his adventure. One of the first illustrations (not reproduced here) shows the two, sitting comfortably on a large meteorite as if on a Paris omnibus, traveling through deep time as if through deep space.

"The very first of Boitard's true scenes from deep time therefore depicts these two characters - the human and the magical - as actors within the scene itself, just as Buckland had been an actor within his den of extinct hyenas (fig. 17). The magic has whisked the demon in the period costume and the elegantly dressed Parisian back in deep time into the world of the plesiosaur (fig. 76; text 58). The nightmarish horror of the encounter, heightened by such gratuitous details as the reptile's forked tongue and yellowish scaly coat, establishes the required tone of monstrosity in the ancient world. With the principle of magical time-travel thus established, Boitard does not bother to depict himself in any later scenes.

"The frontispiece, however, is significant: it is a highly unflattering and monkeylike representation of 'Fossil Man' (fig. 77), wielding a stone axe against unseen enemies and defending his equally simian mate and offspring at the mouth of their cave. This design showed Boitard's readers at once where he stood in the controversy about human origins, and the corresponding narrative (text 59) accentuates the bestiality of his readers' forebears. At the end of the book, his final scene depicts what he terms the 'Anthropic Period,' setting those hardly human beings unambiguously in a landscape of extinct mammals (fig. 78)."

And here is text 59, which Rudwick reproduces from Boitard:

"'Are you afraid?' the demon asked me. "

— I believe we are going to encounter animals even more formidable than those we met on our way here.

"But the genie threw me such a forcefully ironic glance that I was ashamed of my weakness, and I entered the cave with a determined step.... Little by little my pupils dilated, and I was able to see, vaguely at first, the objects that surrounded us: a hyaena, with its skull split as if it had been struck on the head with an axe, was stretched out at our feet, and several scraps of bear's flesh, half eaten, were strewn here and there on the ground, exuding a highly unpleasant smell....But what astonished me most was a kind of clay pot, not fired but sun-baked, very crudely made, and half full of the still warm blood of the hyaena. The genie pointed out that on the edge of the pot were the bloody marks of lips that had drunk the disgusting liquid it contained. By the side of the pot I saw a fragment of flint, trimmed roughly into the form of a tapered axe, mounted at the end of a stick, and bound firmly with strips of bear's skin. This instrument was closely similar to the tomahawk of the Canadian savages....

"The genie put his finger to his mouth, signalling me to keep silent and to move forward with care; which I did. Then he gently lifted the bear skin and revealed to my eyes the most singular and horrible animals I had seen until now. There were three of them, two large, and a small one that I recognized as the young of this horrible species.... Its body had rather the form of an orang-utang, but without being either nimble to graceful, because it was stout, squat and thickly muscular...."

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner Robert J. O'Hara (
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

Stephen Trussel 8/20/2002

Prehistoric Fiction