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Bringing our ancestors back to life

In my article in last week’s issue of Science, ”Bringing Hominins Back to Life,” I feature several “paleoartists” who create lifelike models of our ancestors for museum displays, magazine covers, and documentaries. All of these artists owe their credibility and success to close collaborations with human evolution experts, who serve as reality checkers for the scientific validity of their reconstructions.

For example, an early influence on John Gurche, a paleoartist in Trumansburg, New York, was primatologist Adrienne Zihlman of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Gurche contacted Zihlman in the early 1980s and asked if he could participate in her dissections of great apes. Zihlman alerted Gurche whenever a freshly deceased specimen arrived, whereupon he hopped on an airplane and made his way to her lab. When I visited Zihlman’s lab several months ago, she showed me a thick photo album full of pictures of Gurche in a white lab coat actively participating in the dissections.

Paris studio of paleoartist Elisabeth DaynèsCopyright 2007 Photo P. Plailly Eurelios - Reconstruction Atelier Daynès Paris

Zihlman recalls that Gurche was present for the dissections of several chimps, at least two gorillas, and an orangutan. He took “thousands” of photographs of his own, Zihlman recalls, and was particularly interested in measuring the thickness of the fat in the apes’ faces, which would provide him with educated guesses about what the faces of early hominins might have looked like. Gurche also made casts of the dissected faces, to capture the arrangement of muscles, and he once made a full body cast of a chimpanzee.

Adrie and Alfons Kennis, twin brother paleoartists from Arnhem in the Netherlands, had similar expert help when they were asked by National Geographic to reconstruct a female Neandertal nicknamed “Wilma.” The magazine’s science editor, James Shreeve, asked Steven Churchill, a paleoanthropologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, to serve as science adviser on the project. “I was flown to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Kennis brothers,” Churchill says. “I put together a notebook for them on basic body proportions, the trunks, arms, and legs, and spent a day with them, Shreeve, and the other [editors].”

The project was particularly challenging, Churchill says, because although many male Neandertals had been reconstructed, there were very few models of females. After returning to Duke, Churchill exchanged e-mails with the Kennis brothers at least every 2 days, guiding them as the reconstruction took shape.

The Paris studio of paleoartist Elisabeth Daynès (see photo) is also testimony to the close relationship between paleoartists and scientists. Her atelier is a regular stop for anthropologists visiting the City of Lights. (I have been a regular visitor myself for the past 10 years, an experience that was the original inspiration for my story in Science.) Just last week, William Jungers, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York, stopped by to discuss his ongoing collaboration with Daynès on how best to reconstuct the tiny Homo floresiensis, a.k.a. the Hobbit. “I’ve been working closely with Elisabeth on the hobbit, via e-mail and recently at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City,” Jungers told me recently. “I have also consulted with her on australopithecines and early Homo. She is very open to constructive criticism and suggestions based on real data from the fossil bones themselves.”

Daynès’s Web site includes several short videos of her interactions with scientists, such as her visit to Georgia to see David Lordkipanidze, director of the Dmanisi excavations, which have uncovered the oldest known hominins outside of Africa. In one particularly vivid scene, Daynès and Lordkipanidze sit and talk at the edge of the Dmanisi trenches with casts of the 1.8-million-year-old skulls on the ground before them.