Jean-Jacques Hublin

2023 Balzan Prize for Evolution of Humankind: Paleoanthropology

For the importance of his discoveries in the field, notably that of the oldest Homo sapiens in Africa; for his ability to synthesise data from cutting-edge technologies; for his skills in organising scientific teams, notably as head of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig; and for his qualities as a teacher and populariser.

A French national who spent part of his career in Germany, Jean-Jacques Hublin, born in 1953, has distinguished himself by the importance of his scientific work, which began forty-five years ago and is still ongoing. Even though paleoanthropology is a rapidly evolving discipline, thanks mainly to the contribution of new technologies, he has in fact signed almost 350 articles and a dozen books.
Numerous sites in Africa (Morocco, Ethiopia, Algeria) and Europe (France, Bulgaria) have been the subject of his investigation, and his discoveries in the field have profoundly transformed our view of human history, in particular, the discovery of the oldest Homo sapiens specimens in Africa at the Moroccan site of Djebel Irhoud, and of the oldest European sapiens in the Bulgarian cave of Bacho Kiro.
Some of the most significant aspects of Hublin’s work include the exceptional length of the period covered by his research fields and theoretical hypotheses (Lower, Middle, and Upper Pleistocene); the major revisions in chronology brought about by his discoveries, which in particular enabled him to move the origins of Homo sapiens considerably back in time, and consequently the arrival of our species in Europe, and to renew the hypotheses on the geographical dispersion of Homo sapiens outside Africa, based on a Pan-African origin.
Moreover, Professor Hublin stands out for his remarkable ability to go far beyond the mere description of facts and synthesise a multiplicity of data on the nature and history of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and the most ancient sapiens, and for his use of innovative scientific technologies like imaging, digital tools, molecular techniques, DNA, statistical analysis, and isotope analysis.
His in-depth analyses of the evolution of the human brain, not so much through an increase in its size as through its restructuring, in relation to the emergence of modern cognition (complex language and abstract thought), made it possible to connect biological evolution with mental and cultural evolution from an interdisciplinary perspective.
His ability to modify his points of view in line with changes in the discipline, whether they involve archaeological discoveries or the use of new technologies, as well as to overturn perspectives, whether by abandoning evolutionary linearity, inverting the norm and the exception, or highlighting multiple causalities (biological, climatological, cultural, etc.) is rare and noteworthy. Equally noteworthy is his commitment to the autonomy of science, and his ability to identify and take a distance from ideological interference in a discipline that has had to build itself up against religious prejudice, reawakened by the growing influence of creationism today.
Jean-Jacques Hublin, who has authored an exceptional number of publications in top scientific journals, manages remarkably successful multidisciplinary scientific teams, both in the field and in the laboratory, most notably the team at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, where he created the Department of Human Evolution in 2004, and the European Society for the study of Human Evolution, where he is one of the founding members.
Finally, he possesses remarkable skills as a disseminator to the interested public, both in books of general interest and in his lectures at the Collège de France, first as a visiting professor and then as full professor, chair of palaeoanthropology, created in 2021. His sense of imagery and striking formulas have made him an unrivalled communicator of the major developments in his discipline.

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