What did they look like? How did they live? What did they know how to do? This face-to-face confrontation with the first humans aspires to make understand "how close we are to them," says its author, a population geneticist and professor at the University of Ferrara, in an interview with AFP.

Translated into six languages, "Album de famille" (Albin Michel) is a "non-fictional novel", that of human genealogy. A journey through time through 15 portraits, from the famous Lucy to the first Homo sapiens, through the little men of the island of Flores or the mummy Ötzi.

The "photos" of their faces, which the author has collected in the book, have been recreated by artists thanks to archaeologists, paleontologists and geneticists who have reconstructed their skeletons and genes.

"I did a lot of work on Neanderthal DNA," a species that disappeared 40,000 years ago, says the 67-year-old evolutionary biologist. But his relationship with him changed the day he came across a reproduction by French artist Elisabeth Daynès. "The statue was on display in a museum, lurking in a corner. Suddenly, this man appeared to me, naked, smiling at me," says Guido Barbujani.

"Reduce time distance"

The meeting created an "intense personal bond" with these humans from the depths of the ages, a perception that was then reinforced with the Covid-19 pandemic: "We spent our time at home, alone, while we ginned the dead. I then had the idea of reducing the temporal distance between us and these people who lived thousands, millions of years ago," says the scientist.

Over a time scale starting three million years ago, their "potential" faces are revealed. He insists on this term because they are reconstructions based on scientific hypotheses. Each photo opens a chapter that describes their daily life, their morphology, their manual and cognitive abilities, their migrations...

A skull of the species Homo floresiensis (Flores Man) exhibited at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, in 2016 © JC DOMENECH / MNHN / AFP / Archives

"I interviewed archaeologists who study fossils and as a geneticist I cross-checked the information," says Prof. Barbujani. The study of ancient DNA, which earned the 2022 Nobel Prize to the pioneer of this research Svante Pääbo, "allows us to know the evolutionary process that led to what we are today".

His approach is "factual", unlike Yuval Harari's world bestseller "Sapiens" (2011), "which provides answers to everything, even to what we do not know", ironically the geneticist.

"What we don't know"

Some points can be affirmed with almost certainty: we know in particular that Lucy inaugurated the human adventure on two legs, that the boy of Turkuna, of the species Homo georgicus (800,000 years old) was the first ancestor to migrate, that Sapiens and Neanderthals crossed their genes...

"We have the general pattern: when Homo sapiens came out of Africa, all the other lineages disappeared. This does not mean that we killed them all, but that competition with us led to the extinction of other groups. What we don't know are the details of this process," says Prof. Barbujani.

Photo provided by the University of Cambridge on April 5, 2022 showing a sketch of the "tree of life" by Charles Darwin © Stuart Roberts / University of Cambridge / AFP / Archives

That's why "Family Album" insists "on the many things we don't know". "For example, what is intelligence? It is a field of research that is constantly evolving."

His favorite character? He confesses a soft spot for the 37,000-year-old man of Oase. "Look at his face, we want to have coffee with him!"

But at the top of the podium, he places Charles Darwin, the last Homo sapiens of his work, "one of the largest brains that our species has produced".

Because the British naturalist (1809-1882) understood before the others "that over time species acquire new organs and differ from each other, from common ancestors", guessing that "sooner or later we will end up talking about Man".

© 2023 AFP