Joseph-François Lafitau

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Joseph-Francois Lafitau
Joseph-François Lafitau.jpg
Born May 31, 1681
Died July 3, 1746
Nationality French
Known for French Jesuit missionary, ethnologist, naturalist
Notable work Moeurs des Sauvages Amériquains, Comparées aux Moeurs des Premiers Temps, Histoire de Jean de Brienne, Roy de Jérusalem et Empereur de Constantinople, Histoire des découvertes et conquestes des Portugais dans le Nouveau Monde, Mémoire...concernant la précieuse plante du gin-seng

Joseph-François Lafitau (French: [lafito]; May 31, 1681 – July 3, 1746) was a French Jesuit missionary, ethnologist, and naturalist. He is best known for his use of the comparative method in the field of scientific anthropology, the discovery of ginseng, and his writings on the Iroquois. Lafitau was the first of the Jesuit missionaries in Canada to have a scientific point of view.[1] Francis Parkman praises Lafitau, stating, “none of the old writers are so satisfactory as Lafitau.”[1]

Early years[edit]

Lafitau was born in Bordeaux on May 31, 1681, and died there on July 3, 1746.[2] Growing up in the port city of Bordeaux, Lafitau gained an interest in the French empire at a young age.[3] Although his father was a wealthy merchant and banker in the citadel of the Huguenot Protestantism, the Lafitau family remained strong Catholics.[2] His younger brother, Pierre-François (1685–1764), followed Lafitau into the Jesuit order and later became the Bishop of Sisteron.[3] Lafitau was able to gain access to books and the opportunity to study and learn many languages as a result of his family’s wealth and resources.[2] He was familiar with important French, Spanish and English voyages, as well as ancient literature, philosophy, theology, geography, and natural history. Lafitau had access to these sources through his education, and this is evident in his writing – in which he frequently makes reference to them.[4] Since the Jesuits offered a path to higher education in France, Lafitau joined the ministry at Bordeaux at fifteen.[2] Following his novitiate, he studied rhetoric and philosophy at Pau between 1699 and 1701. He then taught humanities and rhetoric at Limoges, Saintes and Pau, before returning to his studies at Poitiers and La Fleche from 1706 to 1709.[3] He finished his studies in theology at the College of Louis-le-Grand in Paris in 1710.[2] It was the next year, in April 1711, that Father General Tamburini granted him permission to leave at the end of the year in order to join the Iroquois mission in Canada, where he remained as a missionary for nearly six years.[2]

Work on the Iroquois in Sault St. Louis[edit]

Lafitau is best known for his important discoveries on the Iroquois society.[5] He arrived in Quebec in 1711 amidst a period of hostility between the Five Nations prior to the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht.[6] The woods were deemed unsafe for travelers and therefore he was ordered to join the Iroquois on the south shore of the St. Lawrence valley in Sault St. Louis, also known as Kahnawake.[2] Sault St. Louis already shared a great tradition with both the members of his order and the Iroquois by the time Lafitau arrived.[7]

He noticed the importance of women in Iroquois society, the universality of marriage as an institution, age grading, the classificatory system of relationship, and the pulse of Indian politics in the town council.[5] Lafitau also contributed to existing scholarship on the Iroquois Long-house; he details the rules of residence and social organization. Lafitau’s observations provide a greater understanding of Iroquois kinship and exogamy.[8]

Comparative methodology[edit]

Lafitau is considered the first of the modern ethnographers and a precursor of scientific ethnology for his work on the Iroquois.[9] He developed a model of studying peoples that involved describing existing cultures on their own terms—not in comparison to European society .[9] He distinguished generic and specific traits, transforming the “generic savage” into specific tribal groups.[10] He explained that “only from specific identities can genetic relations be inferred.”[9] Furthermore, he was the first to declare, “contemporary primitive cultures throw light upon the culture of ancient people and vice versa.”[9]

Lafitau is remembered for applying the comparative method with a greater level of competency than any of his contemporaries. Through original field observations, he was able to critique the works of earlier writers on Primitive peoples.[11] By using the Comparative Method, Lafitau rejected all theories of social and cultural change and instead used his study to demonstrate the similarities in customs, practices, and usages of the Native North Americans with diverse peoples from different continents and centuries.[12] He consistently relied on the doctrine of degeneration: all men originally shared one religion with one God but over time as people migrated to separate margins of the earth where they then lost touch with the values and traditions of this one true religion and culture.[13] Therefore, Lafitau believed in the "psychic unity of mankind" and the doctrine of primitive monotheism.[11]

Discovery of Ginseng[edit]

His discovery of ginseng in the forest bordering the St. Lawrence made Lafitau famous in the European academies.[1] Ginseng was native to the New World as well as the Old and had long been known to the Iroquois for its medicinal properties[1] It was on his search for ginseng that Lafitau began to question Mohawk herbalists, gaining information of native customs and beliefs, which he hoped would benefit European knowledge of medicine.[14]

First learning about the ginseng of Tartary (i.e. Northern China) from the writings of the Jesuit missionary Pierre Jartoux, Lafitau surmised that the conditions in North America would be favorable to the plant.[6] He was determined to find the plant in the Iroquois culture so that he would have partial proof of their Asiatic origin.[6] Encouraged by the Iroquois to continue his hunt, a Mohawk woman whom Lafitau had hired to find the plant recognized it as one of the common remedies of the Iroquois.[6] Lafitau quickly sent for Jartoux’s publication and description to identity the plant from the plate.[6] In his discovery, Lafitau was the first to employ botanical plates in the field in order to gain information from Natives. His published report the Mémoire...concernant la précieuse plante du gin-seng in 1718 set off a hunt by market collectors who exported ginseng to China via France.[6] Mémoire...concernant la précieuse plante du gin-seng has never been translated into English.

Moeurs des Sauvages Amériquains[edit]

His major work, written in French, was first published in 1724 in Paris. It is entitled Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times (Moeurs des Sauvages Amériquains, Comparées aux Moeurs des Premiers Temps) and is 1,100 pages in total.[15] It was not until 1974 that Dr. William Fenton and Dr. Elizabeth Moore made the first translation into English available.

Volume I

  1. Design and Plan of the Work
  2. The Origin of the peoples of America
  3. Idea or Character of Primitives Peoples in General
  4. Religion
  5. Political Government
  6. Marriage and Education

Volume II

  1. Occupations of the Men in the Villages
  2. Occupation of the Women
  3. Warfare
  4. Embassies and Trade
  5. Hunting and Fishing
  6. Games
  7. Sickness and Medicine
  8. Death, Burial and Mourning
  9. Language


The length of each section reflects Lafitau’s disproportionate devotion to specific aspects of the Iroquois. His 350-page chapter on religion accounts for his personal role as a missionary in Canada. Chapters on government, marriage, education, death, and burial are all roughly 70 pages in length. The longest chapters in Volume II on Occupation of the Women and Warfare is related to the importance of these subjects in Iroquois culture.[13]

Other major works[edit]

Aside from Moeurs des Sauvages Amériquains and his discoveries on ginseng, Lafitau wrote two other books. Histoire de Jean de Brienne, Roy de Jérusalem et Empereur de Constantinople was released before his return to Canada in Paris, 1727.[6] However, the subject matter of this book is not widely known and very few copies are in circulation.[6]

In his second major work, entitled Histoire des découvertes et conquestes des Portugais dans le Nouveau Monde, Lafitau wrote two volumes in an attempt to make available to French readers details of exploration and adventure that were unknown to them.[6] This commonly read and used chronicles of customs was published in 1733.[6] Continuing with the same development of customs discussed in his first major work Moeurs des Sauvages Amériquains, Lafitau maintains that customs can only be understood in the original language of those who practice them.[6]

Return to France[edit]

Lafitau returned to France in November of 1717.[8] There he pleaded to colonial authorities that the brandy trade was forcing the Iroquois to move from Sault St. Louis to avoid the liquor trafficking. By arguing that the brandy trade with the Natives of Canada was against the interests of the Colony and the State, Lafitau was successful in stopping a lot of this activity.[18]

The manuscript for his work on the Iroquois was submitted and approved in Paris on May 15 of 1722.[19] The ideas and writing style of Lafitau have been identified as characteristic of Cartesian Linguistics. His ideas were published at an important intersection between French Classicism and the New Rationalism that favored reason over authority and the stability of the laws of nature.[20] The originality of Lafitau’s work was not fully recognized during his lifetime because many of his ideas seemed similar to those published by earlier writers, but scholars of later centuries paid tribute to his unprecedented systematic comparative and evolutionary anthropology.


  1. ^ a b c d William Fenton and Elizabeth Moore, introduction to Customs of the American Indians compared with the customs of primitive times, by Joseph-François Lafitau (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1974), xxix.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g William Fenton and Elizabeth Moore, "Precursor of Scientific Anthropology," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 25 (1969): 175, accessed February 25, 2012,
  3. ^ a b c Fenton and Moore, introduction, xxxi.
  4. ^ Fenton and Moore, introduction, xii.
  5. ^ a b William Fenton and Elizabeth Moore, "Precursor of Scientific Anthropology," 174.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Lafitau, Joseph-Francois," Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, accessed February 25, 2012,
  7. ^ Fenton and Moore, introduction, xxxii.
  8. ^ a b Fenton and Moore, introduction, xxxv.
  9. ^ a b c d William Fenton and Elizabeth Moore, "Precursor of Scientific Anthropology," 180.
  10. ^ William Fenton and Elizabeth Moore, "Precursor of Scientific Anthropology," 181.
  11. ^ a b Fenton and Moore, introduction, lxxvi.
  12. ^ Fenton and Moore, introduction, xliv.
  13. ^ a b Fenton and Moore, introduction, xlvii.
  14. ^ Fenton and Moore, introduction, xxxiv.
  15. ^ Fenton and Moore, introduction, xi.
  16. ^ Joseph-François Lafitau, "Customs of the American Indians compared with the customs of primitive times," 137.
  17. ^ Joseph-François Lafitau, "Customs of the American Indians compared with the customs of primitive times," 105.
  18. ^ Fenton and Moore, introduction, xxxvi.
  19. ^ Fenton and Moore, introduction, xl.
  20. ^ Fenton and Moore, introduction, vliii.


  • Fenton, William, "Lafitau, Joseph-Francois," in Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2000. s.v. (accessed February 25, 2012).
  • Lafitau, Joseph-François. 1974. Customs of the American Indians compared with the customs of primitive times. Toronto: Champlain Society.
  • Moore, Elizabeth, William Fenton. Introduction to Customs of the American Indians compared with the customs of primitive times by Joseph-François Lafitau, ix- cxix. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1974.
  • Moore, Elizabeth, William Fenton. "Precursor of Scientific Anthropology." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology. Vol. 25. no. 2 (1969): 173-187. (accessed February 25, 2012).

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