Highlight: Francesco d’Errico, Homo prehistoricus

On September 12th 2014, the PACEA researcher of Italian origin was awarded the CNRS silver medal on the University of Bordeaux campus: an ideal opportunity to look back over the career of this scientific globetrotter.

Francesco D'Errico © Olivier Got Francesco D'Errico © Olivier Got

1964, Puglia region, south-east Italy: Prehistorians explore the Grotta del Cavallo in the Bay of Uluzzo, key to understanding how modern man arrived in Europe. At the same time, not far away, Francesco d’Errico, age 7, is looking for flint-stones in this region which is know for its rich remains from the Paleolithic period.

October 1984, University of Paris 6: His French still rather hesitant, the young student embarks on a postgraduate course (DEA) in prehistory after a Master’s degree in archeology and anthropology at the University of Turin, even though he had considered taking up a career as a journalist as a result of his love of writing.

1994, University of Bordeaux campus: Fresh from Cambridge with his wife Maria Fernanda Sanchez Goni, the young researcher joins the CNRS in the PACEA laboratory.

June 26 2014, Rome: Francesco d’Errico is awarded the international Fabio-Frassetto prize by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the oldest scientific academy in Europe, for his life’s work. The prize is presented by Giorgio Napolitano, president of the Republic of Italy.

September 12 2014, Bordeaux-Victoire campus: The prehistorian is awarded the CNRS silver medal.

During his career, this “scientific globetrotter” as he was referred to on September 12th by Stéphanie Thiébault, director of the CNRS Ecology and Environment Institute, has taken part in fifty missions, travelled in 17 countries, including China, Botswana, Morocco, the United States, the Netherlands and South Africa, collaborated on some 280 papers and published 260 articles, the latest of which was in PNAS dated September 2nd.

A fervent supporter of Neanderthal man

This publication identifies an engraving made on the wall of a cave by Neanderthals and argues that they had a symbolic material culture, which has been considered up to now to be a characteristic trait of modern man. This research led Bruno Maureille, director of PACEA, to say during the ceremony that “Neanderthal Man owes you a debt of gratitude. He’s found a great advocate in you”, and Dominique Sacchi, emeritus director of research, talked about his “persistence and great strength of conviction” in his efforts to rehabilitate Homo Neanderthalensis. Francesco d’Errico admits himself that “if we accept what certain anthropologists would like us to believe, that Neanderthal man was by definition stupid, then we no longer need to study the remains they have left for us and we no longer need archeologists. My impression is rather that certain so-called “modern” populations were sometimes just as “stupid” as Neanderthal and vice-versa. What’s important is to reconstruct the cultural trajectories of these different populations over time, and not label them with preconceptions”.

His area of research concerns the study of fossil hominids (Neanderthal, Homo erectus, Australopithecus, etc.) and the first modern men through their symbolic representations (engravings, adornments, use of pigment, etc.), technical behavior (use of tools) and relationship with the environment. For this he uses the most modern microscopic, 3D imaging and dating techniques as well as the old-fashioned methods: repeating the same gestures as those that were used thousands of years ago, using similar tools to check, for example, whether a stone engraving is the consequence of a graphical project and not a utilitarian action such as cutting skin or meat. “Research is a craftsman’s work,” explains the researcher, who is a sailing enthusiast in his spare time. He also studies current populations from an ethno-archeological point of view, taking part in research into the Himba populations in Namibia and their ancestral use of ochre. This work is the subject of a documentary that he co-produced: The color of the Ovahimba.

The favorite place of study for this passionate globetrotter is the Blombos Cave site in South Africa. “The environment is fantastic and the place belongs to the person who’s leading the excavations, Christopher Henshilwood, who’s changed from businessman to archeology professor. In this cave at the heart of a nature reserve, looking out on to the ocean, in a totally untouched environment, we’ve found a paint pot dating back 100,000 years, pearls 75 to 80,000 years old, some of the most ancient discoveries up to now. These excavations have helped to change our ideas about the appearance of symbolism”.

Updated on 14/11/2017