Homo sapiens rediscovered: the scientific revolution rewriting our origins

Review by Brenna Hassett

In this slim and accessible volume, Palaeolithic archaeologist Paul Pettitt writes with confidence about the recent history of history, or, rather, prehistory. A prologue introduces us to the immersive world of Palaeolithic archaeology, introduces its intent, and from there we are whisked down the road of human evolution, neatly summarised in the first chapter. Any book that threatens to cover material of this scope is by necessity going to have to gloss over some of the spiky, detailed edges of current academic debates but, generally, Pettitt manages to convey the direction of the human story at a ready, readable pace. Given that palaeogeneticist Svante Pääbo has just been awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize for Medicine, the second chapter is exceedingly timely, providing insight into how the incredible developments of archaeology in the last 40 years owe so much to cutting-edge science. In the third chapter, we begin to resolve the Palaeolithic environment, with the complex climate systems of the last 2.5 million years condensed into easily parsed cores of ice and earth.

The importance of palaeogenetics is revived in Chapter 5, when the last three of the living Homo groups (Sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans) shared a world. Chapter 6 introduces a concept that should not be revolutionary in the context of the human story but remains so while Palaeolithic archaeology holds a Eurocentric focus: the diverse ecological zones our species have occupied, and the sweeping story of Palaeolithic art and culture that is only now being recognised from south-east Asia and Australia.

The impact of palaeoclimatic modelling is again demonstrated in Chapter 7, where the 74,000 BC Toba eruption and the 40,000 BC eruption of the Archiflegreo volcano is, somewhat controversially, held out as a major factor in the changing fortunes of all human species alive at the time. The advent of 3D modelling from CT images is highlighted (alongside traditional biological anthropological methods) in the following chapter, looking at disease conditions among anatomically modern humans. Given my personal expertise, I would of course argue that this would have been a fascinating place to explore other technical advances, such as synchrotron imaging and laser ablation mass spectrometry. In later discussion of Palaeolithic bodies, Pettitt sees the disproportionately high number of burials with disabilities and medical conditions as a way of dealing with ‘bad’ deaths, but I have always wondered if these may not have been ‘bad’ but rather sacred or special in some way, like the (admittedly much later) extraordinary burial of an elderly disabled woman with thousands of tortoise shells at Hilazon Tachtit. Pettitt is back in familiar territory with the chapters that follow discussing Eurasian Ice Age art. The lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel and the ‘venus’ figurines of several different types are laid out with considerable reflection, though a few of the more recent ideas – for instance that the upright stance of the lion-man might actually be that of a cave bear – are not given an airing.

The chronology, lithic technology, and art of the Eurasian Upper Palaeolithic occupy much of this book, and the scope and detail here is sweeping, carrying the reader through tens of thousands of years. Pettitt is careful in this book to insist on looking at the past through informed eyes, and gives a good account of the complexities of ancestry and the modern obsession with it. By grace of Pettitt’s long experience in the field and thorough immersion in the world of the Palaeolithic, there are a few stunning moments where even the most astonishing archaeology seems tangible: for me, the greatest thrill was his description of holding the delicate, paradigm-upending 75,000-year-old shell beads from Blombos Cave in the palm of his hand. If there is anything in abundance in our evolutionary history, it is time. Pettitt’s book asks us to contend with it, and gives the detail to do so.

Homo sapiens rediscovered: the scientific revolution rewriting our origins
Paul Pettitt
Thames & Hudson, £25
ISBN 978-0500252635