French anthropologist Levi-Strauss dies at 100

PARIS Tue Nov 3, 2009 3:40pm EST

1 of 2. French intellectual Claude Levi-Strauss in a 1971 photo courtesy of UNESCO.

Credit: Reuters/UNESCO/Handout

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PARIS (Reuters) - French intellectual Claude Levi-Strauss, the founder of structural anthropology, has died at the age of 100, his publishing house Plon said on Tuesday.

Levi-Strauss, who was known to a wider public thanks to his 1955 memoir and masterpiece, "Tristes Tropiques," died on Saturday. He would have turned 101 on November 28.

"He was France's greatest scientist," said writer Jean d'Ormesson, fellow member of the Academie Francaise which brings together the elite of the country's intellectual establishment.

A brilliant student who excelled at geology, law and philosophy, Levi-Strauss was posted to Brazil as a professor in 1935. It was there that he found his vocation for anthropology.

He conducted several expeditions into remote areas of the Amazon rainforest and the Mato Grosso to study the customs of local tribes, starting to develop theories and methods that would later have a profound impact on his field.

He returned to France and was drafted into the French army at the start of World War Two. After the defeat of France by the Nazis, he realized that being Jewish had now become dangerous and he moved to the United States until 1944.

Over the following years, he held a number of prestigious scientific posts in Paris and New York and started to churn out his influential scientific volumes.

"I HATE VOYAGES"

In particular, he used tribal customs and myths to show that human behavior is based on logical systems which may vary from society to society, but possess a common sub-structure.

These findings, which challenged the notion that Western European culture was somehow unique or superior, resonated with the ideas of opponents of colonialism and Levi-Strauss gained a following beyond the circle of professional anthropologists.

He argued that linguistics, communications and mathematical logic could be used to reveal fundamental social systems.

Exceptionally erudite, Levi-Strauss was not the most accessible of thinkers and many of his works are impenetrable to laymen, but he managed to transcend the esoteric bounds of science with "Tristes Tropiques."

A detailed account of social behavior among Brazilian tribes, "Tristes Tropiques" was set apart from the author's other writings by its autobiographical content.

While the work's opening sentence -- "I hate voyages and explorers" -- was hardly designed to win the approval of his scientific peers, lovers of literature considered it a triumph.

The academy that awards France's most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, announced the night before making public their choice that year that they regretted being unable to choose "Tristes Tropiques" because it was not a novel.

He achieved France's highest recognition for a scientist in 1973, when he was elected to the Academie Francaise. He also received numerous honors from foreign universities and governments, including Brazil.

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