We are always telling stories about the world, the universe, ourselves. It helps to make sense of things. But sometimes, through familiarity or neglect, we get lost. We forget where a story really starts, losing sight of where it’s headed. What is biodiversity? Are electric cars new? Even the well-worn tale of human origins is missing a key chapter: how a small band of hunter-gatherers survived a climate disaster, becoming ancestors of us all. Here we provide the surprising origins of some strange and familiar things.