Jean Malaurie

Jean Malaurie

Jean Malaurie aboard the Soviet hydrographic ship Malygin, off the coast of Uelen, during his expedition to Chukotka, August 1990.
Born (1922-12-22) December 22, 1922
Mainz, Germany
Nationality  France
Fields Ethnohistorian, geographer-physist, writer

Jean Malaurie (born December 22, 1922) is a French cultural anthropologist, geographer, physicist, and writer.


Jean Malaurie was born in Mainz, Germany, into a French Catholic family of history scholars of Norman and Scottish descent. In 1943, while studying at the Lycée Henri-IV in Paris, he was drafted into the Service du travail obligatoire (STO - Compulsory Work Service for the Germans). Refusing to join, he went into hiding until August 1944.

He did his postgraduate studies in the Institut de Géographie de l’Université de Paris, under Professor Emmanuel de Martonne who, some 15 years earlier, had also taught to Julien Gracq. In 1948, Emmanuel de Martonne granted Malaurie the title of geographer/physicist of the French Polar Expeditions led by Paul Emile Victor along the West coast of Greenland and on its ice cap. He accomplished two missions in the Skansen Mountain, in the south of Disko Island, with the French Polar Expeditions (spring/autumn 1948 and 1949).

After two geomorphological and geocryological missions for the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique – CNRS (“French National Centre for Scientific Research”), he spent two winters alone in the Hoggar desert in 1949 and 1950 (Algeria, Sahara). Then, in July 1950, he left on a mission to Thule, Greenland, where he led the “first French geographical and ethnological mission to the North of Greenland” for the CNRS. There, he established the first genealogy, covering four generations, of a group of 302 Inughuit, the northern most people on earth. He also implemented a planning of trends in order to avoid the risks of consanguinity (banning marriage up to the 5th degree).

As a geomorphologist in the Great North of Greenland, he raised the map of the coast to 1:100 000 (topography, geomorphology of screes and nivation, sea ice). The map covers a 300 kilometre long and 3 kilometre wide region from Inglefield Land and the north of the Humboldt Glacier, to the south of Washington Land (Cape Jackson, 80° N). He discovered various fjords and unknown littorals, which he was authorized to name himself after French names, like the Paris Fjord, or after his Inuit travel companions such as the famous shaman, Uutaaq. He conducted a detailed geomorphological study of the screes and high latitude geocryological ecosystems, of which he described the cyclic and strata organization. He later made this the subject of his thesis: Thèmes de recherche géomorphologique dans le nord-ouest du Groenland[1] (Geomorphological research in Northwest Greenland). On April 9, 1962, he was named Docteur d’État de géographie of the Institut de géographie de la Faculté des lettres de l'université de Paris.

He was the first man ever to reach the geomagnetic North Pole (78°29′N 68°54′W) on May 29, 1951, with two dog sleds, together with the Inuit man Kutsikitsoq. On June 16, 1951 he discovered the American military base of Thule (Thule Air Base), built in secret to host nuclear bombers, and he decided to publicly stand up against the establishment of this base, for which the local population wasn’t consulted.

His book Les Derniers rois de Thulé (The Last Kings of Thule) was published in 1955 as the founding book of the Terre Humaine series (Ed. Plon, Paris). It was soon followed by other classics such as Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Les Immémoriaux by Victor Segalen, Affables Sauvages by Francis Huxley, Soleil Hopi by Don C. Talayesva, Pour l’Afrique, j’accuse by René Dumont and Carnets d’enquêtes by Émile Zola. The Terre Humaine series intends to move the focus away from our Western way of looking at things. In 1957, he was recommended by Fernand Braudel and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and elected to the Chair of Polar Geography, the first ever in the history of the French University, created for this occasion within the École des hautes études en sciences sociales – EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences). He then founded in 1958, the Centre d'études arctiques (Center for Arctic Studies) and launched in 1960 the great CNRS journal on the Arctic: Inter-Nord.

In 1968-1969, he led the French section of the Governmental Commission of France and Quebec during the creation of the autonomous territory of New Quebec, now called Nunavik. His recommendations, published in the book Du Nouveau-Québec au Nunavik, 1964-2004, une fragile autonomie[2] (From New Quebec to Nunavik, 1964–2004, a Fragile Autonomy) and in the special section « Nunavik/Ungava » of the Inter-Nord publication n°20,[3] aimed to establish the immediate autonomy of this territory and a deep pedagogical reform of the education system. They contributed to elaborating the status of the current Canadian Arctic Territories, mainly inspired by Charlie Watt, an Inuit Federal Senator.

Jean Malaurie led the first Franco-Soviet expedition in Siberian Chukotka in 1990, at the request of the Soviet government and of the Academician Dmitry Likhachov, Scientific Counsellor to Mikhail Gorbachev. He was also the first Westerner to discover the Whale Alley in 1990 in Northeast Siberia; a monument that had remained ignored until it was first identified by the Soviet archaeologist Sergueï Arutiunov in 1977. In 1992, Jean Malaurie founded the State Polar Academy in Saint-Petersburg, of which he was named Honorary President for life. In this school of Siberian executives, that hosts around a thousand boarder students, representing forty-five ethnic groups, in five faculties, French is taught as the first foreign language in a compulsory course.

In the course of his 31 missions, from Greenland to Siberia, he taught a method — called "anthropogeography, from stone to man" — reminding how the history, rituals and sociology of the Arctic peoples can only be understood in the frame of a given physical environment. These observations are linked to cybernetics with the Gaia principle, based on the conclusions of James Lovelock, shared by Jean Malaurie: the Earth would be "a dynamic physiological system that includes the biosphere and has kept our planet fit for life for over three billion years[4]".

Jean Malaurie is an ardent defender of the rights of Arctic minorities, currently threatened by the development of industries and oil activities in the Great North. He has been an advisor to the four capital cities: Washington, Ottawa, Copenhagen and Moscow. In 2007, he was named UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Arctic polar issues (Fields of Sciences and Culture), and was invited to chair the first UNESCO International Experts Meeting on the Arctic: Climate change and Arctic sustainable development: scientific, social, cultural and educational challenges, which took place in Monaco from the 3rd to the 6th of March 2009. He is currently preparing, in collaboration with UNESCO, the upcoming International Congress on Circumpolar Peoples, to be held in 2011 in Greenland.

In 2007, he was appointed Honorary President of the Uummannaq Polar Institute, an institution that aims to preserve local Greenlandic culture and promote educational programmes for Inuit youth. In 2010, he founded the Pôle Inuit – Institut Jean Malaurie in Uummannaq (Greenland). As a writer, he is the author of, among other publications, The Last Kings of Thule (“Les derniers rois de Thulé”, Paris, 1955; first published in English in 1982), translated into 23 languages and now the most widely distributed book about the Inuit people. This book has been adapted into a movie and the cartoon version is in progress. Overall, Jean Malaurie published ten books and over five hundred scientific papers, which have just been assembled, together with previously unpublished ones, into a six volumes edition to be published by the CNRS Éditions.

A leading light of French polar research, in the lineage of Commander Jean-Baptiste Charcot, captain of the Pourquoi-Pas ?, he is now living in Dieppe, Normandy, and getting ready to finish his life in Uummannaq, northwest coast of Greenland, where a Jean Malaurie Museum has been created that features a reconstitution of his former wintering base in a peat house.

He was awarded the French title of "Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur" and the Great Gold Medal of Saint-Petersburg, and received the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London from the Queen herself. He was also granted the Medal of the Bear, a high distinction of the Greenlandic government, as well as many other foreign distinctions such as the Mungo Park Medal, awarded to him in 2005 by The Royal Scottish Geographic Society.

Titles and honorary distinctions


Scientific distinctions

Awards and Medals

Other foreign distinctions


References Sources

Notes and references

  1. Paris : CNRS, 1968.
  2. Lead by par Jacques Rousseau and Jean Malaurie, Collection Polaires, Economica, Paris, 2004.
  3. June 2003, Paris, CNRS Editions.
  4. James Lovelock, La revanche de Gaïa, J'ai Lu, coll. « J'ai Lu Essai, n° 8579 », 2008, (2d ed.) p. 30.
  5. Transpol'Air : Festival du Film arctique [archive]
  6. Transpol'Air : Inter-Nord publication [archive]
  7. Debate published in Actes et Documents n° 4. Fondation Française d’études nordiques, Rouen, Paris, 1972.




Films about Jean Malaurie

Sound archives

External links

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