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Reconstructing Ourselves

The work and methods of anthropological artists in current museum exhibits

April 15, 2014

A visit to the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) makes us come across eight heads, each inside a display case. They are tridimensional reconstructions of hominid heads, eight different species that represent the current knowledge about human ancestry, from 6-7 million years ago to the first records of our own species. Each of them gaze at the viewer with a bone chilling liveness (Figs. 1-2).

Anatomical reconstruction of the head of Australopithecus afarensis (2.5 million years old), by John Gurche
Fig.2 – Anatomical reconstruction of the head of Homo heidelbergensis (600,000 years old), by John Gurche

Two and a half years was the amount of time these heads took to be completed by the hands of John Gurche. He also created full body bronze statues of hominids that can be found at the same exhibit. Anthropological artist extraordinaire, Gurche has poured his life onto reconstructing our ancestors to the best of his knowledge and current science’s knowledge. Such expertise involved numerous dissections of all species of great apes, many trips to Africa, extensive study of literature, and plenty of dedication. In fact, his work methods alone confirm this. Each reconstructed head is made from silicone, with individually applied strands of bear fur or human hair punched with a modified needle into the scalp; and acrylic eyes, that Gurche crafts himself in a process that involves 30 steps, and even after many years only turns a 50 percent chance of being good enough to include in the model. In his words “the desire to see the face of an ancestor is very strong” (Fig. 3).

Fig.3 – Stages in the anatomical reconstruction of the head of Sahelanthropus tchadensis (6-7 million years old), by John Gurche.

This video conveys some of John Gurche’s process and gives a glimpse to the experience in the Hall of Human Origins. To wrap up the life changing project, he published a book – Shaping Humanity, from Yale University Press, discusses the methods, talks about about the human evolutionary story with art, and reflects on the origins of creativity. Watch the fascinating book trailer here.

Despite the high quality of Gurche’s work and how unique it sounds, there are several other artists acting on the same realm. The space and need was always there, but the modern interest of the general public in forensic science, popularized by TV series and movies, has potentiated the opportunities. Seeing the past being reconstructed with the excitement of detective work combines with the need to understand ourselves. And museums are exploiting this trend to attract audiences and do science outreach.

Coincidently, an exhibit just opened at the Natural History Museum in London that also focuses on reconstruction of human origins. Britain: one million years of the human story highlights the change in the country’s landscape and inhabitants, and introduces the visitors to creatures like mammoths, elephants and rhinos that 125,000 years ago lived on the same space they now occupy. All findings were done by a numerous and solid scientific team, which commissioned two full body reconstructions (Fig.4) to twin Dutch artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis. They built breathtaking realistic models that can be seen in this video, along with a glimpse into their work process.

Fig.4 – Anatomical reconstruction of a Neanderthal (left) and Homo sapiens, by Adrie and Alfons Kennis.

Clearly reconstructing the inexistent or vestigial requires very specialized knowledge and plenty of hours of practice; the results are very impactful and effective in connecting us with ourselves. However, the hard labor of anthropological artists doesn’t mean they don’t know how to have fun. Check out the recent endeavor of Nigel Cockerton with a Crystal Head Vodka bottle!

Written by Diana Marques

Diana is a 1) a scientific illustrator and animator; 2) researching technology, visual communication and museums in a Digital Media PhD; 3) a biologist; 4) and occasionally a couple things more. Find her on the Web, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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