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"At first sight, an incredible, shocking, and fantastic hypothesis"



Jean de Charpentier (1786-1855) heard Ignaz Venetz’s views at a meeting of the Societe Helvetique at St. Bernard, Switzerland, in 1829. He discussed his growing acceptance of these ideas with Charles Lyell in 1832 when Lyell visited Switzerland on his honeymoon.






 Pierre des Marmettes as depicted by Charpentier in1841.

The great erratic at Monthey (La Pierre des Marmettes) on the western slope of  the Rhone valley (Charpentier lived in near-by Bex). This massive rock originated 25 miles to the south, near Mont Blanc, apparently having somehow travelled down several valleys to its present location.


The Pierre des Marmettes as it sits on the hillside above the Rhone valley

(see also http://www.panoramio.com/photo/7351072 )


In a paper he published in 1835, Charpentier marshaled a great many facts in favor of the Alpine erratics having been transported out of the Mont Blanc Massif and into the Lake Geneva valley by a “glacier-monstre” (as he later called it, in 1841).


After briefly noting existing ideas (natural dams bursting, floods) he argued against water as a transporting medium:



All the objections, he wrote, are answered by assuming glaciers transported the blocks and that the ridges are moraines.


Charpentier next sought a cause for the extension of the glaciers. He noted that all other geological (fossil) evidence pointed to a higher temperature in the past – so, how did glaciation come about? He drew upon existing theories by Leonce Elie de Beaumont (1798 – 1874) and Johann von Buch concerning mountain formation. The formation of the Alps was relatively recent and rapid, according to Elie, and  Charpentier speculated that this created colder temperatures until the Alps later slumped to their present altitude: thus glaciers expanded but have since retreated to their current extent.


Thus, Charpentier did not so much propose a colder period in Earth's history as a cause of glaciation but, rather, viewed glaciations as a local effect of an Alpine "revolution."  However, while Charpentier considered only glaciations in the Alps, as early as 1821 J.L Bigsby reported on erratics in the Lake Huron region of North America: “I am inclined to the opinion that an enormous body of water has rushed over these countries (a " debacle") swept from distant lands, the colossal fragments of rock so frequent in the Lake [Huron]” (p.255).


Observations like this were noted by Bernhard Studer (1794-1887), a well-respected geologist, who thought that a flood was still a better explanation on account of its universality.  Studer also summarized data on existing glaciers world-wide and argued that more than simply altitude must be involved in their formation.


This map is from a later publication by Charpentier (1841): "Map of the limits of the erratic deposit of the valley of the Rhone.” The yellow area extending down the upper Rhone valley (beginning lower right) and into the Lake Geneva lowland is the area occupied by his “monster glacier” to account for the distribution of erratics. Interestingly, he attributed erratics further down the Rhone valley (to the west) to floods, although these he still associated with the ice cover that brought them to that border.



  1. Do you think that Charpentier can be credited as the originator of the “glacial theory” or of the notion of an “ice age?”
  2. As early as 1821, J.L Bigsby reported on erratics in the Lake Huron region of North America and stated: “I am inclined to the opinion that an enormous body of water has rushed over these countries (a " debacle") swept from distant lands, the colossal fragments of rock so frequent in the Lake [Huron]” (p.255). What impact does Bigsby’s observation have upon the various theories thus far reviewed?




Bigsby, J.I. 1821 Geological and mineralogical observations on the northwest portion of Lake Huron The American Journal of Science, and Arts v.3 p.254-272 http://www.google.com/books?id=7TMPAAAAYAAJ&dq=Bigsby&pg=PA254


Charpentier, J. de 1835  Sur la cause probable du transport des blocs erratiques de la Suisse Annales des Mines Third Series v.8 p.219-236 http://www.google.com/books?id=cccqAAAAYAAJ&lr=&pg=PA219

 TRANSLATION: Charpentier, J. de 1836 [1834]  Account of one of the most important results of the Investigations of M. Venetz, regarding the Present and Earlier Condition of the Glaciers of the Canton Vallais. Read at Lucerne to the Meeting of the General Swiss Society of Naturalists on the 29th July 1834.  The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal v.11 (April 1835 - October 1836) p.210-220 http://www.google.com/books?id=FR4AAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA210 [This is more or less a translation of “Sur la cause probable . . .”]


Charpentier, J. de 1836 Quelques conjectures sur les grandes revolutions qui on change la surface de la Suisse, et particulierment celle du canton de Vaud, pour l'amener a sont etat actuel Biblioteque Universelle de Geneve  New Series v.14 ( July 1836) p.1-12 http://www.google.com/books?id=IQEbAAAAYAAJ&pg=RA1-PA1

 TRANSLATION: Charpentier, F. [J.] de1837 [1836] Some conjectures regarding the great revolutions which have so changed the surface of Switzerland,  and particularly that of the Canton of Vaud, as to give rise to its present aspect  The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal v.12 (October 1836-April 1837) p.27-36 http://www.google.com/books?id=o00EAAAAYAAJ&lr=&pg=PA27


Charpentier, J. de 1841 Essai sur les glaciers et sur le terrain erratique du bassin du Rhone.  Laussane, Marc Ducloux http://books.google.com/books?id=eGwsSDuzkSAC&pg=PP7


Studer, B. 1838  Über die neueren Erklärungen des Phänomens erratischer Blöcke Neues Jahrbuch fur Mineralogie, Geognosie, Geologie und Petrefaktenkunde p.278-287 [Concerning recent statements on the phenomenon of erratic blocks] http://books.google.com/books?id=gBQ4AAAAMAAJ&pg=PA278

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