In the year 1927, in Hanoi, Vietnam, archaeologist Madeleine Colani wrote a letter to the governor-generals of the French colony of Indochina. Deliberately bypassing her immediate supervisor, Blondel, she appealed to the top brass with her powerful contacts: she would not be forced to retire from her field work at the age of 58 (Ha 2014). This bold act exemplified Colani’s strong-willed attitude and unwavering commitment to her field.

Colani’s most notable work included the study of the stone jars found across Laos, which were large enough for a grown adult to crawl into. Although local lore claims they held rice whiskey at an ancient feast, Colani argued they were burial urns for cremated ashes (Stone 2007). Colani thoroughly documented the Plain of Jars with her practiced hand at photography, though she rarely appears in the photographs herself (Källén 2015). Colani does not pose with a booted foot atop the jars, as if she had just hunted them down. Although her peers would describe Colani as small, fragile, and appearing as if she was “…likely to be toppled by the slightest breeze (Källén 2015)”, she was a powerful force in the scientific community. She used her contacts and strong influence in the field to adamantly persist in her studies, repeatedly overruling her skeptical supervisor (Ha 2014). Even after retirement at age 60, she passed up the standard procedure of returning to France, and remained in Vietnam to oversee all archaeological missions to Laos as an influential member of the EFEO (the French School of the Far East) (Källén 2015).

Colani was both a student and a teacher in her early career. She first began as a teaching assistant in 1898, but did not stay in the position long. In fact, in less than a decade she earned a place as a professor of the highest grade in the colony (Ha 2014). Still, she continued to grow and learn, using her time off from work to further her own education. First, she obtained her general bachelor’s degree in 1903 before completing her BSc in 1908. Then she pursued doctoral degrees from both the university and the state, completing them in 1914 and 1920, respectively (Cœdès 1943). While she was often busy following her educational pursuits in Paris, she also became a volunteer for the geological service. It was here that she met her mentor, Henri Mansuy, with whom she studied Indochinese flora and marine micro organisms (Ha 2014).

While Colani was extremely qualified to be working as a geologist given her credentials and experience, she was not offered a position until the bureau became desperate to hire someone. Many of the male geologists from France had died in World War I and, as a result, the bureau was understaffed. The hiring of Colani onto a team of male geologists was significant because it was the first time that a woman had been appointed to such a position. She proved to be an asset to the team and was promoted to the position of senior assistant shortly after joining (Ha 2014).

Madeleine Colani made her first big break in scientific research and discovery in the 1920s and 1930s. During this time, she and Henri Mansuy ventured into the province of Hoa Binh, located in Northern Vietnam (Tjoa-Bonatz 2012). Colani decided to further investigate cave sites in this region. She worked at four main sites, and her discoveries led to the establishment of three distinct periods for artifacts. Colani describes these periods in her article titled L’Áge de la Pierre dans la province de Hoa-Binh (Tjoa-Bonatz 2012).

The first period is known as the “archaic period” which consists of big, unifacial flakes which are constructed from cobbles. The next is the “intermediate period” which contains pieces similar to the archaic artifacts, but they are smaller and weigh less. The intermediate artifacts also show more refined craftsmanship. In addition, Colani discovered many shells from the archaic and intermediate periods, which were thought to have some cultural significance (Tjoa-Bonatz 2012). The final period is the “less ancient period”, which is composed of artifacts from the upper layer of the Earth. These findings include retouched tools, such as knives and scrapers. Sixty years after Madeleine Colani’s propositions, an international conference was held in her name to come to an agreement on a standardized definition of the tool types she discovered (Tjoa-Bonatz 2012). Colani’s work influenced archaeologists of this region for years to come, and helped to spark her own interest in furthering her field work.

Colani’s final contribution to the scientific world was a tag team effort with her younger sister, Eleonore. Madeleine and her sister together became a dynamic duo which as a pair are attributed to be the “discoverers of the prehistoric skulls of Lang Cuom” (Ha 2014). Although they both contributed greatly to the discovery of the skulls, it is widely concluded that Madeleine received more credit for this endeavor due to her academic achievements. Eleonore often does not receive much press for the great deal of assistance that she gave to her aging older sister. Together, the Colani sisters completely immersed themselves into the Hmong culture: they lived in a Hmong-style house where Madeleine would sleep in a hammock and Eleanore on the floor. Local children loved to visit them and their black dog, who would follow them to their excavation sites every day (Källén 2015). They both ultimately took on the role of elders within the community, and their excavations and research helped to provide jobs to the the local people. By conducting scientific research, stimulating the local economy, and being pseudo grandmothers to their town, the Colani sisters made a lasting impact on society.

To honor the legacy of Madeleine Colani, we have included a few additional readings that discuss her life’s work. We hope that these spur conversation, curiosity, and provide readers with a platform from which to begin their own research.

Written by: Janie Felton, Erica Deming, Rachel McDonald, and Ellie Schu for the course “Gender and Human Evolution”, taught by Caroline VanSickle and published as part of the Women in Paleoanthropology special collection.


Cœdès, G. 1943. “Madeleine Colani” 1866-1943, Indochine, no. 146, 17 June 1943, Hanoi, Vietnam, pp. 1-2. Web. 

Ha, Marie-Paule. “French Women and the Empire: The Case of Indochina.” Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP, 2014. Print.

Källén, Anna. “Stones Standing: Archaeology, Colonialism and Ecotourism in Northern Laos.” Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc., 2015. Print. 

Stone, Richard. “Saving a Lost Culture’s Megalithic Jars.” Science 315.5814 (2007): 934–35. Web.

Tjoa-Bonatz, Mai Lin., Andreas Reinecke, and Dominik Bonatz. “Chapter 1: The Hoabinhian Definition.” Crossing Borders: Selected Papers from the 13th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists. Vol. 1. Singapore: NUS, 2012. 3-12. Web.

Image of Madeleine Colani from  Fonds Cambodge, réf. CAM 20001, Courtesy of EFEO photography archives, Paris.

Image of the Plain of Jars from Wikimedia Commons.




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