Born in Ainsy-sur-Armençon, Griaule received a good education and was preparing to become an engineer and enrolled at the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand when in 1917 at the end of World War I he volunteered to become a pilot in the French airforce.
In 1920 he returned to university, where he attended the lectures of Marcel Mauss and Marcel Cohen. Intrigued by anthropology, he gave up plans for a technical career. In 1927 he received a degree from the École Nationale de Langues Orientales, where he concentrated on Amharic and Gueze.
Between 1928 and 1933 Griaule participated in two large-scale ethnographic expeditions -- one to Ethiopia and the ambitious Dakar to Djibouti expedition which crossed Africa. On the latter expedition he first visited the Dogon, the ethnic group with whom he would be for ever associated.
In 1933 he received a diploma from the École Pratique des Hautes Études in religion.
Throughout the 1930s Griaule and his student Germaine Dieterlen undertook several group expeditions to the Dogon area in Mali. During these trips Griaule pioneered the use of aerial photography, surveying, and team work to study other cultures. In 1938 he produced his dissertation and received a doctorate based on his Dogon research.
With the outbreak of World War II Griaule was drafted again in the French airforce and after the war he served as the inaugural professor of the first chair of anthropology at the University of Paris - Sorbonne. He died in 1956.
Griaule is remembered for his work with the blind hunter Ogotemmeli and his elaborate exegeses of Dogon myth (including the Nommo) and ritual. His study of Dogon masks remains one of the fundamental works on the topic. A number of anthropologists are highly critical of his work and argue that his claims about Sirus and his elaborate accounts of cosmic eggs and mystic vibrations do not accurately reflect Dogon belief.
Griaule is the father of anthropologist Geneviève Calame-Griaule.