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“A giant”: death at 101 of ethnologist Jean Malaurie, specialist in the Far North

The ethnologist and publisher Jean Malaurie, tireless advocate of “first peoples” particularly of the Far North, died in Dieppe at the age of 101, his son Guillaume announced this Monday.

Both an explorer, scientist and adventurer, Jean Malaurie spent ten years of his life between Greenland and Siberia. The Great North exerted on him “a force of appeal so profound that it had become an obsession”, insisted this author of a dozen books, creator of the “Terre humaine” collection.

Jean Malaurie was born on December 22, 1922 in Mainz (Germany) where his father taught, in a bourgeois and austere family. He said that a crossing of the frozen Rhine, made as a child, may have determined his vocation for the world of ice.

A resistance fighter during the war, he studied literature and geography in Paris. With his meager salary as a research associate at the CNRS, he left for Thule, in the northwest of Greenland in 1950 as a cartographer and geocryologist (mineral specialist). This stay will change his life.

Jean Malaurie spent ten years of his life between Greenland and Siberia, wrote a famous book in homage to the Inuit, “The Last Kings of Thule”, first title in the famous “Terre humaine” collection.

“Human Earth” (ed. Plon) was born because he was “upset” in 1951 by the brutal establishment of an American nuclear base: he wanted to warn against the risk that the earth would no longer be, one day, human.

A “big mouth”

A huge vigorous frame with narrowed eyes, white locks and thick black eyebrows until old age, thunderous voice, Jean Malaurie was above all a “character”, a hyper-energetic “big mouth”, fighting against the decline of the West: “ our senses are tired. By dint of telephones and calculators, we have become handicapped.”

Attached to shamanism, he regretted that it was sometimes impossible for him “to make people understand that first peoples have a thought equal to ours. “One can be titled and without culture, one can be illiterate and still be wise,” he assured.

He explained his work as follows: “I am nomadic, I smell, I note everything then I become sedentary, a citizen among others, dressed in an animal skin”. He spoke fervently of periods spent in igloos, eating raw fish at -5° (and -30° outside the shelter).

1st Westerner to discover “the alley of the whales”

The first man, with the Inuit Kutsikitsoq, to ​​reach the geomagnetic North Pole (which is not the North Pole) in two dog sleds in 1951, Jean Malaurie led the first Franco-Soviet expedition to Siberian Chukotka in 1990.

Jean Malaurie during his expedition to Chukotka, in 1990.
Jean Malaurie during his expedition to Chukotka, in 1990.

He was also the first Westerner to discover, that year, the “alley of the whales”, a monument in northeast Siberia with a shamanic spirit, ignored until its identification in the 1970s by Soviet archeology.

A major figure in the French CNRS, he co-founded the State Polar Academy of Saint Petersburg in the early 1990s, responsible for training elites among the Trans-Siberian peoples, of which he was honorary president for life.

” A giant “

“I would just like my ashes to be scattered over Thule, Greenland. One way or another I will continue to live, maybe I will come back as a butterfly? », he confided to Télérama magazine, a few months before his 98th birthday. He then said he had “several projects in progress” to “get the “Terre humaine” collection back on track, which according to him was going “off the rails”. In February 2021, he left his position as honorary president of the collection.

“He was a giant. Jean Malaurie has just left for the other side of the horizon. He leaves a work of masterful depth,” wrote anthropologist Philippe Charlier, who has directed the collection since 2021, on X.

Praising his early ecological awareness, Prince Albert II of Monaco described the author as “the model, the reference for all those who (…) mobilize for our planet and its poles”.

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