Paleo-artists in the spotlight

Michael Balter writes in this week’s Science about the artistic reconstruction of ancient fossil hominins. The occasion for the article seems to be John Gurche’s preparations for fleshing out the new Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History:

In the morning, Gurche would pack up the heads in crates and drive them to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where they will be displayed next year in the National Museum of Natural History's new Hall of Human Origins. The result, says Richard Potts, head of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program, will be a chance for museum visitors to "look into the eyes of our ancestors." It will also be another job done for Gurche, one of an elite group of paleoartists (see sidebar, p. 139), who combine cutting-edge research and exquisite artistry to bring hominins back to life in museum displays, magazines, and documentaries.

The article goes through some of the scientific background and artistic choices made in reconstructions. The most interesting to me is to see the way that different contemporary artists choose to represent the same fossils – Balter’s article illustrates Daynès’ and Gurche’s reconstructions of the Liang Bua 1 hominid as a good example – the two differ radically in hair, pigmentation, nose form, and attitude. That’s a big reason why I think more representations are much better for the science – if we start to really focus in on one reconstruction, it has the potential to cloud our thinking. Looking at two images of the same fossil really helps to clarify the interpretive effort that goes into them.

A sidebar to the article profiles the training of paleo-artists Gurche, Elizabeth Daynès and Adrie and Alfons Kennis. Want to reconstruct hominins in three dimensions? There seem to be two routes: start with dissections and work your way up, or start with an art background and work your way down.

References:

Balter M. 2009. Bringing hominins back to life. Science 325:136-139. doi:10.1126/science.325_136