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.