Dieterlen (1903-1999) was a French anthropologist.
She was a student of Marcel Mauss and wrote on a large range of ethnographictopics and made pioneering contributions to the study of myths, initiations,
techniques (particularly "descriptive ethnography"),
graphic systems, objects, classifications, ritual and social
She is most noted for her work among the Dogon and the Bambaraof Mali, having
lived with them for over twenty years, often in collaboration with noted French
anthropologist Marcel Griaule (1898-1956).
Some of the main themes in her work concentrate
on the notions of sacred kingship, the position of the first born, relationships between
maternal uncles and nephews, division
of labor, marriage,
and the status of the rainmaker in Dogon society. Because each episode of the
rite is enacted only once every sixty years, Dieterlen's documentation of the sigui cycle allowed the Dogon
themselves to see and interpret the entire sequence of rites which they had
heretofore only observed in part.
Dieterlen began her ethnographic research in Bandiagara,
Mali in 1941. Perhaps most controversially, Dieterlen was criticized by her
peers for her publications with Griaule on Dogon astronomy,
which professed an ancient knowledge of the existence of a dwarf white star,Sirius Balso called the Dog
Star, invisible to the naked eye. This ancient indigenous knowledge (the Nommo) and the
supposition that extraterrestrials might have been in contact with the Dogon
was popularized by Robert K. G. Temple in his book The Sirius
Mystery (1976) and Tom RobbinsHalf Asleep in Frog Pajamas (1995).
Dutch anthropologist W.E.A. van Beek, who spent
seven years with the Dogon, seriously critiqued the research methods of Griaule
and Dieterlen, suggesting, based on a conceived scenario presented by Brecher
and Sagan, that they relied heavily on one primary informant who may have been
influenced by the teachings of a Jesuit missionary who may have lived in the region prior to
their arrival (Dogon Restudied ). He accuses Griaule of
misinterpreting and influencing results. However, daughter and colleague of
Marcel Griaule, Genevieve Calame-Griaule, came to defend the project,
dismissing van Beek's criticism as misguided speculation and being rooted in an
apparent ignorance of esoteric tradition. In addition, skeptic and space
journalist, James Oberg in his investigation of the Dogon mystery,
found no substantial evidence that would indicate outside influence, and sees
such proposed scenarios as being "entirely circumstantial"
Dieterlen also served as a Director of Studies at
Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes at the Sorbonne in Paris, a founding
member of the Centre
Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique(CNRS], and a President of the
Committee on Ethnographic Film (founded by Jean Rouch).
An "hommage" collection published in 1978 (Systèmes de signes: Textes
réunis en hommage à Germaine Dieterlen) included essays by Meyer
Fortes and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Dieterlen also worked with
noted ethnographic filmmakerJean Rouch. Mary Douglas also reviewed the contributions made by
Dieterlen to French anthropology in Dogon Culture - Profane and Arcane(1968) and If the Dogon . . . (1975).
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