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Facing The Past

By Jennifer Barone
Oct 28, 2010 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:53 AM


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In our evolutionary kin we see faces both strange and familiar—visibly different from us but marked with an instantly recognizable psychologi­cal inner fire. The re-creations are the work of paleoartist John Gurche at the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York. He has been sculpting extinct humans since he was a child, when he first became fascinated with evolution. “When you’re a kid and you love something, you do art about it,” he says. “I just never stopped.”

To create these lifelike busts, Gurche starts with a plastic or plaster cast of the most complete skull available for each species, typically provided by an expert in the field. Then he goes to work on the face—beginning, surprisingly, with the eyes, which he crafts from layers of acrylic plastic. “The most difficult part is getting a feeling of life in the eyes,” he says. “You have to feel a presence behind them.” Next he adds muscle, cartilage, and fat features using clay. Gurche infers the size and shape of soft tissues in the face from skull dimensions and estimated body weight, using comparative measurements gleaned from the decades he has spent dissecting humans and ape species. “It’s a quest to find out what this face was like,” he says. “I do it by the numbers, building very slowly.”

After all the soft tissue is in place, Gurche lays on a clay skin and works in realistic wrinkles and textures. He then picks an appropriate skin tone and makes a tinted silicone cast of the completed head. Finally, he spends a month finishing each piece, punching in real human hairs around the face one by one. The result is an intimate look at our distant relatives as we have never seen them before: not as dusty fossils, not as forgotten links, but as ancestors whose emotions and behaviors prefigured our own.

Reconstructions by Gurche are on display in the new Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. His work is also featured in Origins: Human Evolution Revealed, by Douglas Palmer.


The bones of this 10-million-year-old great ape, unearthed in Hungary, may be the closest fossil hunters have come to finding the last common ancestor of humans and African apes; the two groups diverged around 7 million to 9 million years ago. Named Rudapithecus (the discovery was made near the village of Rudabánya, and pithecus is from the Greek for “ape”), the animal had a body and brain about the same size as those of a modern chimpanzee. Paleoanthropologist David Begun of the University of Toronto, who found the most complete skull of this forest-dwelling species, says its long arms and curved finger bones indicate that Rudapithecus spent a lot of time hanging from branches. Modest-size molars and thin tooth enamel (also seen in the closely related Dryopithecus) suggest a preference for soft fruits. In his bust, Gurche chose to make the sclera—the whites of the eyes—dark, consistent with their coloration in modern apes.


<a>Wikimedia Commons</a> | José Braga | NULL

Unearthed at cave sites in southern Africa, Paranthropus (“beside man”) was probably not a direct ancestor of ours but rather a distant cousin. Still, its discovery in 1938 bolstered the then-controversial idea that ancient humans arose in Africa. Paranthropus skulls show that “these guys were chewing machines,” says paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University. Flared cheekbones and, in males, a ridge running along the top of the skull supported massive muscles. Although these hominids stood only 4 to 5 feet tall, their molars and jaws were much larger than ours; the Paranthropus diet may have included a lot of tough plant material. In Gurche’s reconstruction the sclera are white, like our own. The whites of the eyes help others discern the direction of an individual’s gaze, which is important for social interaction, but no one knows when in evolutionary history this feature appeared.


<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Homo_erectus.jpg">Wikimedia Commons</a> | Thomas Roche | NULL

First discovered on the island of Java in 1891, and later unearthed in China, Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Republic of Georgia, Homo erectus (“upright man”) was the first hominid to migrate out of Africa. Its anatomy reveals “evolutionary changes that make it more like us,” says New York University paleo­anthropologist Susan Antón. Along with a larger brain—about two-thirds the size of ours—came a reduction in the size and projection of the face, including much smaller teeth and jaws than those of Paranthropus (H. erectus’s contemporary in Africa) and loss of the skull crest. A bony nasal bridge suggests a nose that projected like ours. As hominid body size increased, it took on near-modern proportions of around 5 or 6 feet tall, and the legs grew longer relative to the arms, indicating more efficient walking and perhaps running. Groups of Homo erectus that remained in Africa may in fact be the direct ancestors of modern humans.


Australian researchers were amazed when they found fossils of these diminutive people on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003. Nicknamed hobbit people,

Homo floresiensis

“caught the field off guard—they were the black swan of paleoanthropology,” says Bill Jungers of Stony Brook University in New York. Although they lived at the same time as modern Homo sapiens, these three-and-a-half-foot-tall humans had remarkably small skulls, with a brain just one-third as large as ours, closer in size to that of a chimpanzee than to that of any other human species. A long, slightly projecting face connected to a sturdy jaw that lacks our modern protruding chin. Homo floresiensis’s origins remain controversial. Certain traits, such as their small brain and robust jawbone, appear to be more similar to much older African hominids such as the australopithecines (a group that includes Paranthropus) than to the globe-trotting Homo erectus—but there is no fossil evidence that any of those early species ever migrated out of Africa.

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