Annette Laming-Empiraire (1917-1977) was a badass archaeologist. She studied philosophy in Paris, before WWII broke out. During the German occupation of Paris she became a teacher, which was fulfilling and also was perfect cover for her help in the French Resistance. Yes. Annette was in the French Resistance. Yes, she was a badass. She was the female Indiana Jones. She really did fight against the Nazis. She didn’t, however, loot ancient artefacts.

Soon after the war, she found her calling in archaeology. Annette began her PhD studying ‘the significance of paleolithic art’ at the incredible cave site Lascaux, which preserves beautiful cave art 20,000 years old. She would lay down the foundations for the study of cave art around the world.

Perhaps nothing links us more emotionally to the past than cave art. Seeing that colourful painting of a woolly mammoth, or energetic pride of cave lions, transports us instantly back to a time when these creatures lived and breathed. Back to a time when a human painted this animal onto a wall in a cave. Back to a time when a human saw these animals alive. Because of this emotional link with cave art, it is difficult not to think of why they painted in the caves. Dozens of explanations have been flung about; planning a hunt, respecting the animals, getting the spirit of the animal, and more. This is why Annette’s research was groundbreaking. For the first time, Annette looked at cave paintings not as finding reasons why but looking at how they were displayed in the caves, looking at gender of species, number of species, orientation, symbols and locations. This meticulous, detailed look at cave paintings is a method used by archaeologists today, providing a greater understanding of caves and their paintings.

Annette travelled to Brazil with her husband, Joseph, after her thesis was complete, and published her classic book, Lauscaux: paintings and engravings. Unfortunately, South America was cursed for this French couple. While excavating one site, her husband died after a wall collapsed on him. A few years later, Annette was on holiday in Brazil, where she was electrocuted in the shower.

But Annette’s legacy in South America remains.

A few years before she passed away, while working at the cave site of Lagoa Santa in Brazil, she discovered one of the oldest human skeletons of America. Nicknamed ‘Luzia’, she dates to around 11,500 years BP and has played an important role in research into the earliest Americans, and the migration of our species.

Annette Laming-Empiraire left her mark on archaeology in a way that many dream of and only a few achieve. She changed how we looked at cave art and discovered one of the earliest humans in the Americas. Annette was determined, meticulous, and focused. She was described by her colleague Danièle Lavallée as one of the ‘richest of spirits’ of French Archaeology. And that rich spirit lives on today.

Post by Jan Freedman

Image used with permission of Professor Marcus Beber,  Universidade do Vale do Rio Dos Sinos, from Arquivo Pe. Schmitz. The photo is of the excavation at Iiha do Rosas in 1966.

References: 

Laming, A. 1959. Lascaux: Paintings and Engravings. Pelican.

Lavallée, D. 1978. “Annette Laming-Emperaire.” Journal de la société des Américanistes 65. pp.224-226.

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