Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Faces of human evolution

The Smithsonian Magazine has a very nice online feature that presents seven reconstructions of various extinct hominins that John Gurche crafted for the new National Museum of Natural History’s David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins that opens in two weeks.

The piece describes how he "dissected the heads of modern humans and apes, mapping patterns of soft tissue and bone. He used this information to fill out the features of the fossils. Each sculpture starts with the cast of a fossilized skull; Gurche then adds layers of clay muscle, fat and skin."

I especially liked the quote about how he "even molds the hominids’ eyes out of acrylic plastic, eschewing pre-fabricated versions. "If you want the eyes to be the window to the soul,” Gurche says, “you have to make them with some depth."

To give you an idea of the quality of the reconstructions, here's one of his reconstructions, that of a Neanderthal male (what else!).

From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/A-Closer-Look-at-
Evolutionary-Faces.html?c=y&page=6 ; copyright John Gurche.

These are extremely well done reconstructions, and quite accurate, IMO, and it helps that Gurche gives a bit of background on each of the hominins he reconstructed - gives a nice idea of how he approached this task. I should add that, really, the power of these reconstructions to help make human revolution more accessible to wider audiences can't be overemphasized. I once gave a presentation about what a paleoanthropologist does to a class of kindergartners, and they went absolutely nuts for this picture, mainly I think because they could more easily relate their own lives to that of a small hominin child (and since this was in Montreal, I didn't have to blur out the "boy parts")...

Of course, I didn't tell them just how accurate this picture is, what with the raptor in the upper left and the fact that there is good evidence the Taung Child bears traces that indicate he was likely killed by a bird of prey (Berger 2006)! That last image is drawn from The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans, put out by Yale UP and lavishly illustrated with high-quality reconstructions of extinct hominins. I drew on the illustrations of the book extensively when I taught Human Evolution at McGill a few years ago... lost that book in the recent move to Denver, though. Still dearly wish I had it!


Berger, Lee R. 2006. Predatory bird damage to the Taung type-skull of Australopithecus africanus Dart 1925. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 131:166-168.


chris y said...

Looks like a fun book if you've got $45 to spare. But looking at the sample illustrations on the YUP page I'm puzzled as to why they gave H. erectus, a tropical Asian species, a colouration like modern European H. sapiens. Seems unlikely to me.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Chris -
good point; I suppose there's always some artistic license that's taken in these reconstructions, but that's an interesting observation - hadn't picked up on it.