Thursday, January 2, 2014

Shaping Humanity - John Gurche

The new book Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins by John Gurche tells the stories of the creation of fifteen hominin sculptures for the Smithsonian’s new David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, which opened in March of 2010. Aesthetically and scientifically, the challenge was: how to build into the sculptures strong personalities that would reflect their species’ adaptive narratives? Together these stories trace the outline of the larger story of human history as suggested by the fossil record known so far (excerpts here ):

At the end of the process [of reconstructing the A.L. 444-2 skull of Australopithecus afarensis,] we have an apelike face that conveys an impression of massiveness—something like a great ape with an enhanced masticatory (chewing) system. The jaws and cheek bones are large and heavily constructed, and the chewing muscles are very well developed. The lateral flare of the cheekbones results in a very wide face. It is also a very tall face, with a large, deep lower jaw that makes up a greater portion of the height of the face than it does in living great apes or humans. The area below the mouth is nearly vertical, reflecting the orientation of the front of the mandible. The nose is flat and apelike. The jaws project forward, with a convex area between the nose and mouth.The small distance between the eyes reflects the narrow interorbital region of the skull, and this imparts a unique look in combination with the wide face.

The braincase is small.

The head is now ready to be molded and cast in lifelike silicone. I implant hair and install the eyes. What do we have at the end of this four-month process? There is information here to be sure, as many of the distinctive features of the underlying skull of A.L. 444-2 are reflected in its facial form. But it also must be a face that we can relate to as a living being. If this final phase of bringing the head to life is not successful in achieving a living presence behind the eyes, the purpose of doing a reconstruction is defeated. For the facial expression of the reconstruction, I was shooting for a kind of startling awareness--a feeling of sentience at least as powerful as that visible in the eyes of any of the living great apes. If this kind of effort is successful, you may have something truly magical at the intersection point of science and art: a conduit to a living presence from another time, enabling you to imagine in a detailed way what it would be like to see one of these creatures alive. If the work is done well, the illusion can transport a viewer from museum floor to forest floor.

We are close enough to see the individual beads of his sweat. The sheen of his skin pulses at his jaw and his temple as he chews, and we can see muscle moving under his scalp nearly at the top of his head. He is a majestic creature. There is a slight frown on his robust features. We can see him breathing, and we become aware of a slight zoo-y smell. He brushes away a fly. We are struck with a strong first impression: Ape. He is absolutely an ape. We wait for something to contradict this impression, and we see nothing. Then he opens his mouth and pulls a berry-laden branch through his front teeth, jerking his head back as he pulls. Gorillas do this, but there is something different here, something decidedly un-apelike about it. It was only for a moment, but we’ve seen it: His teeth look human. He lacks the big canine teeth of a male ape.

Calls ring out, an unnerving sound that is only marginally like a human voice. He turns his head, looks back over his shoulder in the direction of his unseen compatriots who have been foraging nearby. They are gathering to move out from this open woodland setting. Those in the trees begin climbing down; mothers gather their young. The adult male we’ve been observing tucks a few remaining berries into his cheek and, for the first time, turns to look directly at us. Not having to search, he looks at us in a way that tells us he’s known of our presence from the beginning. He continues his gaze for just a moment longer than a mere curious glance. He stands up, still keeping a wary eye on us. Then, in a very familiar motion, he turns to stride away and is gone.


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