by Rock Art Network
15 March 2023
Homo Sapiens Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution Rewriting our Origins'
By Paul Pettitt
An expert palaeoarchaeologist reveals how our understanding of the evolution of our species has been transformed by momentous discoveries and technological advancements.
Who are we? How do scientists define Homo sapiens, and how does our species differ from the extinct hominins that came before us? This illuminating book explores how the latest scientific advances, especially in genetics, are revolutionizing our understanding of human evolution. Paul Pettitt reveals the extraordinary story of how our ancestors adapted to unforgiving and relentlessly changing climates, leading to remarkable innovations in art, technology and society that we are only now beginning to comprehend.
Drawing on twenty-five years of experience in the field, Paul Pettitt immerses readers in the caves and rockshelters that provide evidence of our African origins, dispersals to the far reaches of Eurasia, Australasia and ultimately the Americas. Popular accounts of the evolution of Homo sapiens emphasize biomolecular research, notably genetics, but this book also draws from the wealth of information from specific excavations and artefacts, including the author's own investigations into the origins of art and how it evolved over its first 25,000 years. He focuses in particular on behaviour, using archaeological evidence to bring an intimate perspective on lives as they were lived in the almost unimaginably distant past.
About the Author:
Paul Barry Pettitt, FSA is a British archaeologist and academic. He specialises in the Palaeolithic era, with particular focus on claims of art and burial practices of the Neanderthals and Pleistocene Homo sapiens, and methods of determining the age of artefacts from this time. Since 2013, he has been Professor of Archaeology at Durham University. He previously taught at Keble College, Oxford and the University of Sheffield.
Publisher: Thames & Hudson Ltd
Number of pages: 320
Dimensions: 234 x 153 mm
Bradshaw Foundation review:
Paul Pettitt's new publication pieces together the human journey using science. In the last 20 years genetics and molecular level analysis has exploded, and the author uses this 'revolution' to explain what it is to be human. Thanks to the stones, bones and residues, archaeologists now have at their disposal cutting-edge scientific techniques to interrogate our distant ancestors, allowing us to ask an array of questions from 'How did you hunt those large, dangerous animals?' to 'What was the purpose of your art?' A book of this nature requires research involving many specialists in many fields, and the fact that he has worked with so many colleagues can only be reassuring.
The science is certainly on a forensic level, but not at the expense of an emotive narative style. The chapter devoted to Palaeolithic cave art begins with a description of a group of researchers investigating the depicted fauna in the cave of Niaux in France; at one particular moment 'everything else is forgotten. It is the source of creation, the place where the prey come alive, and the place where the natural order of things is made.' Likewise, in the chapter 'The World of the Dead', the author describes with great tenderness the bones of two ten-month-old children 'lying side-by-side, wrapped in shrouds coloured with red ochre' carefully buried 30,000 years ago. Pettitt clearly loves his work, and the reader sees that in his writing.
Another recurring characteristic in Homo Sapiens Rediscovered is the admission that the research may be proved wrong in the future. It's OK to say 'we simply don't know' or 'the when is unequivocal but the where is still unclear'. Moreover, the science is not a straight jacket; the author is still prepared to postulate, as in the chapter 'The Mind' where he enters the Pleistocene mindset, that of the hunter-gatherer who, he suggests, wasn't realy concerned about a hard and fast distinction between animals and humans. Instead, animals weren't killed, they were borrowed from the spirits, and the 'artistic celebrations of their prey could well have been produced as part of the ritual acts that repaid the debts incurred in the places where rebirth could be helped along.' Another technique employed in this publication is the use of contemporary analogy if the explanation appears to becoming too scholarly and/or unbelievable. For example, where the skeletal record reveals defleshed human remains showing the practice of dismantling and consuming parts of the dead, the author reminds us that, after all, 'Christians remember Christ by consuming his body and blood, even if only symbolically.'
Right from the get-go the author explains that art was not unique to Homo sapiens - human exceptionalism - and therefore an understanding of the cultural evolution of our own species requires serious consideration. Thus, the opening line of the Introduction - 'Who are we?' - seems appropriate. The publication begins in Africa, from apes to human origins, and how the 'combination of an efficient bipedalism, weapon- and tool-assisted hunting and butchery, and controlled use of fire had created a successful and competitive colonizer.' He explains that MRI scans can now reveal three-dimensional maps of the areas of the active brain to show that when our ancestors made a handaxe it required 'an ability to envisage a shape and to contol the hands in three dimensions carefully enough to impose that shape on the material.' Clearly this ability to plan a sequence of actions was a significant mental leap. Pettitt covers the salient evolutionary events over the last 5 million years carefully and efficiently, preparing the reader for Liftoff in the last half a million years.
This new depth of analysis is exciting; isotopes that reveal dietary protein, examination of a fragment of bone to reveal extinct human species, genetic analysis to reveal the 'structured metapopulation' which throws light on interactions between populations, mass fingerprinting collagen to reveal our interaction with animals over time. The list goes on, all pointing to the fact that by 300,000 years ago groups of Homo sapiens were spread in regions across Africa. Where to next?
The journey depended on 'Climate Change and Environment'. Cores drilled through polar ice display Earth's dramatically unstable palaeoclimate and the opportunities for our ancestors to disperse out of Africa. In this 'we were African first, then Asian' scenario, the 'high-risk' journey was on, with dispersal routes that avoided obstacles and followed animals through corridors, and routes that always followed the stern and unpredictable rules of climate. This eastward dispersal meant our ancestors came into frequent contact with other human groups, resulting in interaction, sometimes intimate; Eurasia was in fact a 'hothouse of human evolution'. Further work in the field and the laboratory regarding interbreeding and hybridization can only lead to exciting revelations.
With our ancestors' dispersal came adaptation, and with that diversity. A chapter devoted to this diversity describes the human variability - and behavioural flexibility - caused by expansion into new habitats, from the rain forests of Sunda land to the cold of Siberia, and a lot in between. But something new was afoot; 'similar developments in visual culture were shared by early Homo sapiens across their entire range.'
As a staunch environmental determinist, I have always had a soft spot for catastrophism. Warned away from this concept in the early days of my geography degree at Durham, I have secretly held a place for it in my thoughts. To find it titling the chapter that marked our ancestors' entry into Europe feels like final vindication. As the author points out, 'In Earth history, ecological catastrophes were very real, very frequent and very dangerous. It's difficult for an intellectually fashionable academic, ensconced in the warmth of their metropolitan study, to imagine just how precarious life was for early Homo sapiens out there, in the wild.' Indeed, life was difficult enough without the disastrous effects of, say, a volcanic super-eruption such as Toba with its subsequent two hundred years of volcanic winter, so no surprise that there were 'evolutionary winners and losers' - for our ancestors, for Neanderthal populations, and probably for Denisovan populations, among others.
Despite this, our ancestors upped their game. Northwards into Europe heralded new tools in the form of long and thin blades and bladelets. This Protoaurignacian technology, along with 'a relative explosion in the number and variety of wearable ornaments', marked a significant cultural change. The author describes the aches and pains facing our Cro-Magnon Ice Age ancestors as well as the ecological carrying capacity for the small and isolated hunter-gatherer populations. But on they went, into the 'Ivory Age', a world of interaction between Pleistocene mammoths and hunter-gatherers, not only as a means of survival but also as a means of expression with the emergence of some of our earliest known figurative art based on the carving of mammoth ivory. Indeed, the author describes how 'the spirit of these magnificent giants literally suffused the lives of the Aurignacians' in parts of Eurasia. Audial as well as visual culture developed, evidenced by flutes carved from mammoth ivory and using the hollow bones of swans and vultures, probably for music, possibly as lures. And groups from distinct regions were beginning to be identified by distinct artification with artistic practices and objects, objects that included things that did not exist. The author's thoughts on Hohlenstein-Stadel's Lion Man shed light on the significance of these 'creatures of the imagination.'
A chapter that is entitled 'Cold' is going to be grim, and perhaps an unlikely context for striking changes in aspects of society in Central Europe, such as burial, cave art, figurines and structures for living. A widespread set of spiritual beliefs was forming, one example of which was the phenomenon of small 'venus' figurines, found from the Pyrenees all the way to Siberia, about which the author wisely rules out any 'umbrella theories'. With the Last Glacial Maximum we learn of the transition from the Gravettian to the Solutrean in this ever-changing world. In environments of 'refuge', weapons developed and landscapes were being marked with 'drawn, painted, engraved and sculpted art' and the archaeological record demonstrates that daily life did not exclude spiritual life.
As the climate warmed about 19,000 years ago, life - the Magdalenian culture - returned to northern Europe, a culture that was highly mobile, technologically versatile and artistically rich. We know that Magdalenians covered vast distances, and 'far-flung groups aggregated together for several months of the year' for alliances, partners and information. If you have ever visited the Vézère valley of Dordogne in early summer, you can easily imagine how wonderful those get-togethers would be.
The author asks why our ancestors were drawn into the dark and dangerous caves. The complex answer is well presented. In essence, cave art offered benefits. It was a dialogue, sometimes for the individual, sometimes for the group. Cave art itself was not a continuous practice; at times 'the idea caught on and spread, and at other times it was simply lost.' New visitors to the cave, perhaps separated by thousands of years, gave their own meaning to existing images as well as creating their own. Cave art varied dramatically; sometimes artistic convention was more important than naturalism. Where the cave art was placed was not chosen randomly, but given considerable thought. Perhaps it was the act of creating cave art that was important rather than an image left in perpetuity. The author - who sees Lascaux as the zenith of Palaeolithic cave art, for good reason - explores many other intriguing questions about what was going on down there, all based on scientific investigation.
Not all the Upper Palaeolithic art was fixed and large; some was small and portable. We learn that portable art reached its peak between 16,000 and 13,000 years ago, a time when the visual world was 'rich in symbolism and information' and storytelling was paramount. What ever its form, the art seems to have been a celebration of the hunter's prey. It was incorporated into weapon systems, perhaps as a constructive way of mitigating a destructive action. Artistic culture and distinct social identities were also represented by jewelry using shells and carnivore canines.
The author is keen to point out that all of this shows that the minds of early Homo sapiens were very different to our own. By considering the metabolic cost for our brains, the central cultural role of animals, the information derived from the visual sense, how these matters were reflected in the art that was created, and our rituals and beliefs, he explains how cultural identities emerged, how spaces became places and how uncertainty became certainty. During the Upper Palaeolithic beliefs were central to existence, and this certainly seems to be the case described in the chapter 'The World of the Dead' where our ancestors would have had a very 'proximate and visceral experience' of death. Death would have been recognized as an inevitable part of the cycle but not without grief, and what better way to deal with that than by a 'correct practice' including remembering where the dead lie. So yes, minds different to our own, and yet perhaps not so different after all.
On with the journey, and thanks to genetics and archaeology we learn of the consensus view of Eurasian populations into the Americas as well as just how quickly hunter-gatherers can disperse over long distances. We also learn how the last few thousand years of the Ice Age saw hitherto mobile peoples were becoming sedentary and how 'diversity developed into domestication'. This was a gradual and uneven process, and earlier in the publication the author mentions the semi-sedentary adaptations in Upper Palaeolithic Europe, but now very significant transformations - of animals, plants and ourselves - were underway. By 13,000 years ago human innovation had led to much of the world being occupied and 'civilization arose.'
Homo Sapiens Rediscovered makes use of the molecular level scientific revolution that has occurred over the last two decades or so, and despite the inevitable ruffle of feathers due to the wide range of groups of scientists and scientific techniques, the understanding of humanity's long-term evolution is becomming greater and greater. This publication successfully weaves these threads together, and for the author, with an 'emotional thrill matched only by the intellectual challenge of working out how to investigate such long-dead people scientifically' it was clearly a labour of love. My take home thought, however, is that civilization did not rise some 13,000 years ago when much of the world was occupied, but it was there in the world of our Pleistocene ancestors with their 'vast cultural connections, imaginative worlds, exquisite art and ability to survive in some of the world's harshest environments.' Comment