Early Humans Get More Accurate Faces With Stereotype-Free Reconstructions

Silicone casts of facial reconstructions for ‘Lucy’ (left) and the ‘Taung child’ (right). Image via R. Campbell, G. Vinas, M. Henneberg, R. Diogo / Frontiers (open access)

New reconstructions of two ancient humans, referred to as ‘Lucy’ and the ‘Taung child’, could change perceptions of what our ancestors used to look like when they lived in Africa some millions of years ago.

Researchers divulged in a new paper that past reconstructions are often highly inconsistent in their appearances in natural history museums around the world, as they are usually artistic interpretations or results of racist ideas. “Actually, many of the previous reconstructions have been highly influenced by imaginary tales about what is ‘primitive’ and ‘savage,’ versus what is ‘civilized’ and ‘modern,’” added Rui Diogo, review senior researcher and an assistant professor of anatomy at Howard University in Washington, DC, in a blog post.

Their goal was to “move away from intuition” and generate models more scientifically in line with the remains of 3.2 million-year-old Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis)—the oldest and most complete human ancestor—and the Taung child (Australopithecus africanus)—a 2.8-million-year-old child who died at the age of three. The reconstruction process would be recorded as transparently as possible, in contrast with older reimaginations that “have been largely unchallenged by the scientific community and displayed in museums with very little empirical evidence to support them.”

The new versions depict Lucy to have a skin tone similar to the bonobos’. Meanwhile, the Taung child is revealed to bear an appearance close to those of modern South African humans.

To reconstruct the Taung child’s face, the scientists duplicated the child’s skull using traditional molding and casting methods themselves, since existing sculptures tend to be unreliable and inconsistent. While they could gather key features from the skull, the team still had to imagine its facial tissues.

Replicating Lucy was more difficult, as most of her cranial bones are missing. Still, the researchers were able to simulate her head due to her partly retained jawbone.

For both Lucy and the Taung child, the team especially struggled with rendering realistic versions of their soft tissues, since they no longer exist. It was, therefore, pretty much impossible to determine if their base muscles, skin, and other soft tissues were more like those of primates or humans.

To exemplify how varied the results could be, the researchers depicted the Taung child in two variations: the first with “apelike” soft tissues and the second with “humanlike” features. This might also tell us how differently our ancestors could have looked even when their faces have been recreated based on scientific evidence. Just imagine how off stereotype-influenced interpretations can be.

Two versions of facial reconstructions of the ‘Taung child’ without hair or pigment. The child appears more “apelike” on the left and more “humanlike” on the right. Image via R. Campbell, G. Vinas, M. Henneberg, R. Diogo / Frontiers (open access)

While the team had hoped to deliver results as accurate as possible, “we believe that this is not at all the case,” they admitted. This was evidenced by their attempt to recreate Lucy’s skin using modern humans’ skin thickness; when paired with equations supposedly consistent with early human skin thickness, they sometimes received negative results. This is impossible, as animals cannot have negative tissue thickness.

The researchers want to remind museums, scientists, and artists that “presenting information that is not known diminishes the value of that which is known, and may lead to confusion and discourage further interest in human evolutionary theory.” However, staying objective is one of science’s most valued ethics, and it can oftentimes pay to let go of the past so everyone can move forward.

An “intuitive” 2018 reconstruction of the soft tissue of ‘Lucy’. Image via R. Campbell, G. Vinas, M. Henneberg, R. Diogo / Frontiers (open access)

[via Live Science, images via R. Campbell, G. Vinas, M. Henneberg, R. Diogo / Frontiers (open access)]

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