Geografie 1977, 82, 103-124

Karel Absolon as a Geographer and a Great Personality of Czech Natural Science

Josef Rubín

The 16th of June 1977 was the day of the centenary of the birth of Professor Dr. Karel Absolon. Thanks to his work which encompassed the wide horizons of geography, particularly of karst geomorphology, speleology and zoogeography, and furthermore those of zoology, paleoanthropology and prehistoric studies he was one of the greatest figures of Czech scientific life in the first half of the twentieth century. On the occasion of celebrations of the hundredth anniversary of the birth of this versatile scholar the present article is intended to give not only the basic biographical data but to bring some new fact hitherto unrecorded in literature relating to Absolon's extremely fruitful life and one charged with dramatic events to his very last days. The first part describes Absolon's young days, his studies, work and family relationships (Absolon was a grandson of the renowned Dr. Jindřich Wankel who came to be called "father of Moravian prehistory"). It was in 1907 that Absolon was appointed Assistent Professor of Physical Geography with special reference to Zoogeography. In 1927 he became full-fledged Professor of Geography specializing in Paleoanthropogeography and Zoogeography at the Caroline University of Prague. However, his permanent place of work was the Moravské muzeum (Moravian Museum) in Brno where he had founded and headed a department of research into the Quaternary (in the years 1907 to 1939). After the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia he was forced to retire, and many of his manuscripts, sketches of caves, scientific books and other papers were confiscated. Prof. Absolon died on 5th October 1960 in Brno and is buried in the Central Brno Cemetery. The second part is devoted to Absolon's research activities which were truly unique in their immense volume and extent. At the outset Absolon's attention centred primarily on the troglobionts living in the caves and shadowy canyons of the Moravian Karst. He was an outstanding expert in his knowledge of primitive groups of insects, chiefly of the Collembola and the Thysanura orders. These he collected not only in the Moravian Karst but in his search for them he made nine expeditions into the then unexplored areas of the Dinaric Karst (Montenegro, Bosnia, Herzegovina) and visited other karst regions in Europe, the USSR and North Africa. Absolon discovered and described dozens of species and a number of genera of the animals living in caverns and dark places. On the other hand, other explorers honoured him in calling many species and a number of genera by his name. Absolon's geographical works deal primarily with speleology, geomorphology and hydrogeography. It was he who discovered many new caverns and cave rooms and abysses in the Moravian Karst and solved a large number of problems connected with subterranean rivers in the Dinaric Karst including the largest subterranean river Ombla near Dubrovnik, the Buna River, the Timav and others. However, his best known exploit is the discovery of the subterranean spaces (the Punkva Caves) linking the bottom of the Macocha Abyss (169 m deep) in the Moravian Karst with the karst canyon called "Pustý žleb" and making these spaces accessible by his unique underground tourist cruise partly by sailing in boats on the waters of the subterranean Punkva River. Furthermore, it was Absolon who predicted the existence of the subterranean rooms which were to be discovered later on (in the years 1969 to 1972) and constitute the biggest cave system in the Czech Socialist Republic (20 km have been located so far and the work goes on). In addition to this, Absolon was responsible for extensive archeological explorations both inside and outside the caves (especially in the caves Kůlna, Pekárna and Býčí skála) but also in regions inhabited by the Paleolithic man at Předmostí near Přerov and at Dolní Věstonice. It was in the latter locality that he discovered the clay woman figure called the Venus of Věstonice which became known all over the world. Absolon's estate contains at least three great scientific works in manuscript including more than 10,000 illustrations which are waiting for their editors and publisher. These are: 1. An Atlas of the Collembola of the World. 2. Dinarische Karsthydrographie, 3. Travunia (a monograph dealing with the composition, phylogenesis and zoogeography of the Balkan cavernicolous fauna). The third part of the article is concerned with Absolon's personality which exerted a striking influence on the devolopment of Czech natural history. Prof. Absolon maintained scientific contacts with famous foreign geographers and speleologists (e. g. J. Cvijič, E. A. Martel, E. de Martonne, E. Demangeon, A. Penck, N. Casteret and others), with prehistorians, especially Abbé Breuile, and with many eminent figures of cultural and public life. He took an active part in a great number of scientific conferences held in many countries of the world, and was member of many a scientific society both at home and abroad. In 1961 his name was given to a newly discovered cave (Grotta Karel Absolon] in the Apuan Alps in Italy. (This is situated 2 km east of Carrara on the south-eastern foot of the mountain Monte Maggiore. A memorial tablet has been placed at its entrance.) Professor Absolon was no doubt a scholar of an extraordinarily wide horizon and a personality of a high status whose significance widely surpasses the boundaries of the Czech Lands. After the decease of Prof. J. Cvijič and the speleologist E. A. Martel he can be designated as the greatest researcher of his time in the field of karst exploration.