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Updated on
13 June 2017
The archaeology of Migrations

International colloquium organized by Inrap, in partnership with the National Museum of Immigration History.
​November 12 and 13, 2015 at the National Museum of Immigration History.

Archaeology of Migrations 
by Pascal PICQ, Palaeoanthropologist at the Collège de France

Man, the Homo genus, is the only migrating ape. Simians or simiiformes represent a group of over one hundred species in nature today, all relying on tree-filled environments, with the exception of a few species of baboon and macaque. Hominoidea, or apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and gibbons) are highly ecologically dependent on dense and humid forest environments (aside from a few chimpanzee populations). All of these species of monkey and ape are territorial and do not migrate. 

The oldest representatives of our branch, broadly speaking the australopiths, lived in seasonal forests and wooded savannahs. This dependence on a tree-filled world was broken with the emergence of the Homo genus. Setting aside all the various controversies surrounding these first humans, we know that they were present in Africa, and soon after on the southern fringes of Eurasia. Their important morphological diversity bears witness to this geographic expansion. Even if the first humans left Africa with the savannah community of the lion, this still displays a reduced dependence on a particular territory. Moreover, only man continued his expansion towards the East once the savannah community of the lion encountered the forest community of the tiger. From then on, human population migrations were only dependent on environmental pressures. Over hundreds of millennia, human populations settled in ever-higher altitudes and latitudes. During the Middle Palaeolithic period, a biogeography of the Old World was drawn up, with Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) in Europe and Central Asia; Homo sapiens in Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and a part of the Middle East; and Denisova hominins known about in Central Asia, as well as the small Flores Men. They moved via land, with the notable exception of the Flores Men. 

A unique event in this history of life then occurred: the expansion of our Homo sapiens species out of Africa which began 100,000 years ago and crystallised with the access to the New Worlds - Australia/New Guinea, South and then North America, Oceania and, much later, Madagascar. These migrations were embarked upon with boats and paddles, through coastal navigation and across the high-seas. As far as we are aware, Homo sapiens are the only populations ever to go searching beyond the horizon, out into the complete unknown. It is a type of migration unlike anything seen with other mammals - or even birds - as it is not annual, not driven by environmental or demographic factors, and without the aim of returning. Is this the true originality of Man? Modern humanity's recent diaspora has led to great genetic, linguistic and mythological diversity - a natural history in the sense of Lévi-Strauss – and it is by exploring these diversities and systematically analysing them that we can reconstruct the migrations and the colonisation of the Earth by Homo sapiens. 
Pascal Picq is a palaeoanthropologist at the Collège de France, where he collaborates with Professor Yves Coppens, Administrator of the National Museum of Natural History,  Columnist for Les Echos and SudOuest. 
With a background in physics, he undertook two parallel degrees: in theoretical physics (Université Paris VI) and prehistoric archaeology (Université Paris I). After obtaining an M.Phil in the Palaeontology of Vertebrae and Human Palaeontology, and then a PhD (Université Paris VI), he went on to the Duke University Medical Center to conduct post-doctoral studies which were extended through a Research Fellowship. 

His research focuses on the cranial evolution in Hominidae, which includes humans and their ancestors as well as fossilised and living great apes. It is based in experimental studies conducted within the context of evolutionist morphology. Among other aims, this leads to the understanding of the functional and adaptive significance of Hominidae skulls in relation to factors of natural and sexual selection. Through this method, Pascal Picq has integrated the ethology of monkeys and apes into research on human origins. For the past few years, he has been broaching the topic of evolutionary medicine in France through various courses, conferences and in the media (articles for the Magazine de la Santé). 

Pascal Picq has contributed to the spread of knowledge on palaeoanthropology through the publication or around thirty books, a number of which are destined for a young readership, and through his participation in the creation of exhibitions, films and CDs. He is scientific consultant to a number of large museums - the Cité des Sciences, the Palais de la Découverte and the Musée des Confluences - and to the National Education Board concerning their teaching syllabus. He participates in various initiatives aiming to preserve the great apes and the diversity of human cultures. A choreographed trilogy, titled Arborescence and created with the dance company Hallet-Eghayan, is the expression of a meeting between the arts and sciences on the topic of the past, present and future of Humanity. 

  • Pascal PICQ Au Commencement était l’Homme Odile Jacob 2003
  • Pascal PICQ De Darwin à Lévi-Strauss : l’Homme et la Diversité en Danger Odile Jacob 2013
  • Pascal PICQ La mer est le propre d’Homo sapiens. Océanide, A paraître en 2016.


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