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Death of ethnologist Jean Malaurie, specialist in the Far North

He devoted his life to the Great North and its inhabitants, whom he defended with undiminished ardor until the end.

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Death of ethnologist Jean Malaurie, specialist in the Far North

He devoted his life to the Great North and its inhabitants, whom he defended with undiminished ardor until the end. The ethnologist and publisher Jean Malaurie, tireless advocate of “first peoples”, particularly of the Far North, died in Dieppe (Seine-Maritime) at the age of 101, his son Guillaume announced to AFP on Monday.

He was one of those men who are difficult to classify in a box. Geologist and anthropogeographer, cartographer and writer, adventurer and founder of the famous “Terre humaine” book collection, at Plon, he recounted his life like an epic. There was indeed something in the existence of this colossus with thick hair, a force of nature which learned to resist men and the elements first during the war, then through intimate contact with the Inuit of Greenland.

Also read Memoirs, by Jean Malaurie: “The researcher and champion of the first peoples”

Jean Malaurie was born on December 22, 1922 in Mainz, Germany, 40 kilometers from Frankfurt, then occupied by the French after the defeat of 1918. His father was a high school teacher. A veteran of the Great War, wounded near Verdun, he remained a liaison officer for the army, “a Jansenist with a dark mood,” for his son. Jean Malaurie spoke of a “severe and sad” family, but a “gay and happy” childhood in Germany. His father brings him the legends of the Rhine, which deeply mark the kid's imagination. He also remembered the attraction that the Mainz carnival had on him, his first experience of an archaic tradition, and the diligent reading of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper.

A few years later, his mother dreamed of him as a diplomat. The studious student is preparing for the ENS competitive exam at the Henri-IV high school in Paris when the war gets involved. Summoned to join Germany as part of the STO, he flatly refused. “Studies, Kant, Hegel, all of that seemed trivial to me. What is intelligence without morality? For me, it was intolerable to be defeated,” he told Le Figaro in December 2015. “My family was Pétainist,” he added harshly. When he joined the resistance, he was declared persona non grata at home. The break with his world dates from this time. After the war, he turned to the sciences, geology more precisely, a concrete discipline, and became interested in the first peoples, among whom everything remained to be discovered. “I no longer liked the West, and my instinct told me that I was like them. Perhaps because of my Scottish atavism, an inheritance from my mother. »

Also read Ultima Thule, by Jean Malaurie: the Arctic in majesty

He therefore had to leave and the opportunity presented itself in 1948, when Paul-Émile Victor engaged this young geologist in his Arctic expeditions. The CNRS commissioned him for a solo expedition and it was as an adventurer, accompanied by an Inuit, that he reached the North geomagnetic pole by dog ​​sled in May 1951, fifty-six years after the American Peary. He was then the first European to achieve this. The same year, he discovered Thule, on the northwest coast of Greenland, and uncovered, in the middle of the Korean War, an American nuclear base installed on the ancestral territory of the Eskimos. He protests against this occupation in his first book, which is also a manifesto, The Last Kings of Thule, written in 1955. He relates the confrontation between the Eskimos and the foreign soldiers. The Malaurie method is at work: the scientist, with the help of studies and statistics, gives a perfect representation of this land, and the writer, by living among the Inuit and like them, sheds light on this little-known thousand-year-old civilization. .

The Last Kings of Thule will become the founding work of the collection he has just created at Plon and the most widely distributed book in the world on the Inuit. “Human Earth” will be the other side of his work, a collection of works bringing together authors as diverse as a Hopi Indian, a Bigouden peasant's son (Pierre-Jakez Hélias with Le Cheval d'orgueil), an untouchable Indian or a Zola reporter, who enters with his investigative notebooks. For this collection of “studies and testimonies”, he will take Claude Lévi-Strauss out of his Amazonian jungle and the small, restricted circle of cutting-edge scientists. Tristes tropiques will be the second work in the collection, with this famous incipit

“I hate travel and explorers”, a tremendous public success. Defend wild thinking, he will never give up. “My whole life has been about the same subject. By discovering Thule, I found myself at home, I recognized the environment to which I aspired. I was never more myself than I was with them at that time. I remember Claude Lévi-Strauss telling me: I only met one savage at the Sorbonne and it’s you,” he liked to recall.

In 1990, the Russians, who later named him president of the St. Petersburg Polar Academy, where he founded the Institute for Advanced Research with and for indigenous peoples, chose the Frenchman for a mission in eastern Siberia, which was banned access for thirty years. This involves going to study a unique archaeological site in the world, the “Delphi of the Arctic”. The scientist, who has reached the conclusion that these harsh peoples dialogue with the sky and the earth in a dynamic relationship and cultivate better than us the prescience of the balances of this world, will decipher this mysterious Arctic sanctuary in The Alley of the Whales (Mille and One Nights). He will uncover their spiritual worldview and adopt it.

In Paris, where he received in his apartment, which looked like a museum of primitive arts, his grand cross of the Legion of Honor hanging on the neck of a ceramic polar bear, he did not disdain showing visitors the numerous distinctions that he he had received from French, Russian and Greenlandic authorities. But he could also recall with the same cheerful tone what the Thule shaman had told him during his first mission (he led thirty-two), when he still thought, discovering this immense white expanse, that we could leave a territory of ice for another without damage: “Little white man, you’re welcome, our dead are there, our fish are there,” he said, imitating the shaman’s voice. He stayed with them for a year, living like them in the intense cold, eating only raw fish, questioning them tirelessly. And he went back. It is still there that Uttaq, the shaman, finally designated him to speak on behalf of his people and their gods. Which he never stopped doing.

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