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Eugène L. Pirou // Public Domain

The Adventurous Life of Jane Dieulafoy, Pioneering Archaeologist, Artist, and Feminist

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Eugène L. Pirou // Public Domain

In 1851, Jane Magri was born to a French family that already had four daughters. Her father died shortly after her birth. She was educated at a convent, where she learned several languages and excelled in art. Jane had no interest in becoming a housewife, which is what was expected at the time. She seemed to have no interest in marriage, either, until she met Marcel Dieulafoy, a man who matched Jane in both education and thirst for adventure. They agreed to a marriage of equals, in which neither ruled over the other. He was a civil engineer employed by a railroad when he and Jane married in 1870.

That same year, the Franco-Prussian War broke out. Marcel joined the French Army as an engineering officer—and rather than stay at home, Jane dressed in a soldier's uniform and went with him. She became a sharpshooter, accompanying Marcel on every mission, and was never discovered to be a woman during her self-imposed tour of duty.

After the war, Marcel returned to a job with the railroad, but he and Jane wanted more adventure than France could offer. They took trips to Egypt, Morocco, and Persia (now Iran) and developed an interest in history, antiquity, and archaeology. In 1879, Marcel quit the railroad to prepare for a life of exploration. Both Dieulafoys spent 1880 in preparation for an expedition to Susa, an archaeological dig in Persia that proved to be the site of a 6000-year-old regional capital.

Emila Bayard via Adams 2010 // Public Domain

Jane Dieulafoy called herself Marcel’s collaborateur. She used the masculine form of the word deliberately, saying “a [female] collaborator would have been an annoyance.” And once again, Jane donned men's clothing for the Dieulafoys' 14 months in Persia, during which they traveled 6000 kilometers, mostly on horseback. It was a practical decision: The presence of a woman on such an expedition would be both culturally insensitive and dangerous. Both carried weapons, and had several occasions to use them. 

During their travels, both Dieulafoys suffered from mysterious fevers, and Jane had to shave her head at one point due to lice. When they met the Shah, he at first refused to believe Jane was a woman.

After they reached Susa, weather interfered with the excavation, and they soon had to return to Paris. Jane and Marcel were enchanted by Persia, and vowed to return.   

Jane Dieulafoy via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Jane took photographs of everything she saw in Persia, drew pictures, and kept a journal. Her role as documentarian on the expedition enabled her to turn her experiences into a book, which became a best seller in France.

The Dieulafoys' second expedition to Susa in 1885 yielded better results. Jane was by then a trained archaeologist in her own right, and led teams of hundreds of male workers at the dig. They sent 400 crates of artifacts back to France, the most famous being the Lion Frieze from the palace of Darius the Great. It can be seen at the Louvre.

dynamosquito via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Jane worked as hard as any laborer—and she held her own against bandits as well. Once, she was unloading a raft by herself and was accosted by eight men. She held them off at gunpoint for half an hour until the rest of her crew arrived. She reportedly told the bandits, "I have 14 balls at your disposal. Come back with six more friends." The incident was later made into a famous lithograph

via Cohen and Joukowsky 2006 // public domain

Back in Paris, Jane was awarded the cross of the Légion D’Honneur in 1886. She was also given official government permission to dress in men’s clothing, which was otherwise illegal. She wore men’s attire and short hair for the rest of her life, and considered it a great time saver.

Changing global politics forbade the Dieulafoys from returning to Persia after their second expedition. Instead, they traveled to Spain, Portugal, and other areas together. Jane wrote many books and articles about her adventures in Persia and elsewhere, and two novels. However, she was barred from winning any literary awards because she was a woman. In response, she and other authors founded the Prix Femina, an award for women authors, in 1904.  

Jane and Marcel-Auguste Dieulafoy via Wikimedia Commons // public domain

When World War I broke out, 70-year-old Marcel volunteered for a post in Morocco, and Jane, of course, accompanied him. At 65 years old, Jane contracted dysentery and was forced to return to Paris to recuperate. Sadly, she did not, and died from the illness in 1916. Marcel followed her in death in 1920.

6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.


Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.


Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.


Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)


Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.


Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.


In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Researchers Unveil an Unusual New Theory For How Easter Island’s Statues Were Made
Original image
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Moai statues of Easter Island present one of the world's greatest technical mysteries. The stone heads (actually full bodies) that dot the island in the South Pacific are massive and number in the hundreds, prompting archaeologists to wonder how they got there in the first place. Now, as Newsweek reports, a group of researchers believe they're closer to finding an answer.

European sailors first arrived on Easter Island in 1722 and were greeted by a native population of 1500 to 3000. Along with the residents were 900-odd statues carved from solid rock, meaning there were fewer than four people for every massive monolith.

How was such a thin population able pull off such an impressive feat of architecture? According to researchers from Chile, New Zealand, and the U.S., it's possible they had help. Their new study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution suggests that the statues were carved and erected at a time when Easter Island supported a much larger population. Using data from the island, they estimated just how high the island's numbers may have reached.

Easter Island has the agriculture potential to sustain a maximum population of 17,500, researchers say. This estimate is based on the weather and soil quality of the island, 19 percent of which is capable of growing the sweet potatoes that fed inhabitants. "Despite its almost complete isolation, the inhabitants of Easter Island created a complicated social structure and these amazing works of art before a dramatic change occurred," lead author Cedric Puleston said in a statement.

If the Moai were constructed by a much larger group than the Europeans encountered, that would clear up some of the mystery surrounding the island. But it would also raise more questions. How, for instance, did the population fall so quickly in the few centuries between the statues' construction and first contact with Europeans? One theory is ecocide, which happens when an area is exhausted of its resources faster than it can replenish them.

The mystery of how the towering monoliths were transported across the island after they were built still remains. The indigenous people told Dutch explorers that the Moai walked themselves, an explanation an MIT professor put to the test when he designed a 2000-pound sculpture that could be shimmied long distances. But despite the numerous theories, hard evidence related to the figures' origins remains scarce.

[h/t Newsweek]


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