BARBARA GREENSTEIN honors Jim Sackett with gift to the Cotsen Institute

Barbara Greenstein (Anthropology 1972, Law 1979), has made her first ever gift to the Cotsen Institute in honor of James Sackett, who passed away in December 2019. Sackett was instrumental in founding the Institute of Archaeology at UCLA in 1973 and in its renaming as the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology in 2001. In making the gift, Greenstein reflected on her experience learning and working with Sackett.

“In the early 1970s, with great good fortune, I stumbled into Jim Sackett’s undergraduate anthropology courses in human evolution and Paleolithic archaeology. Sackett taught lively classes where the fossil record of hominid evolution—manifested as Australopithecus spp., Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens—was brought back to life in the classroom. He introduced us to Carl Linnaeus, Gregor Mendel, Alfred Wallace, Charles Darwin, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, among others. We pondered what set humans on a divergent evolutionary course compared to other animals, be it our descending from trees, walking upright, hunting and gathering, or our large brains and our capacity for violence. In his hands our study was never dry, and I credit him for my abiding interest in primates, archaeology, and the history of science. Sackett also informed his students of his opinion that Paleontology was a third-rate science, fraught with religious opposition, a history of scams like the Piltdown fraud, and internecine warfare between various academics and schools of thought. He conveyed all of this with a sense of humor, a sense of excitement, and the certainty that whichever fossil a paleontologist uncovered was inevitably believed by its discoverer to be the direct ancestor of modern humans, while everyone else’s finds were offshoots that led only to an extinct branch on the human evolutionary tree.

“In the summer of 1973 I joined Sackett’s excavation at Solvieux, an open-air Paleolithic site in southwest France. There we learned that Sackett was the only American archaeologist that the French allowed to direct a Paleolithic excavation. As we trudged back from daily fieldwork covered in sweat and grime, he would smile broadly at our dirty jeans and streaked faces, our hair tied up in dusty bandanas, and say fondly, ‘you all look really great, you look like archaeologists.’ My memories of that summer also include internecine warfare between various graduate students vying for his attention (a cautionary tale, but proving his point), as well as plenty of vin ordinaire, melon au jambon, and marron glacé, along with lively discussions of the differences in accent between Paris and the Dordogne.

“I last saw Jim Sacket in 2012 or 2013 at an Open House of the Cotsen Institute. I walked into his laboratory to say hello, and we chatted about that summer and the time since. He would have loved the Chauvet Cave program. I hope that he had an opportunity to see the material. Perhaps his spirit is now flowing through those caves, looking on in wonder, as we did with the film The Final Passage.”