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"Paleo-artist" John Gurche recreates the faces of our earliest ancestors, some of who have been extinct for millions of years. (Courtesy of John Gurche)

A Closer Look at Evolutionary Faces

John Gurche, a “paleo-artist,” has recreated strikingly realistic heads of our earliest human ancestors for a new exhibit

Australopithecus afarensis

Australopithecus afarensis
(Courtesy of John Gurche)

To recreate the faces of our early ancestors, some of whom have been extinct for millions of years, sculptor John Gurche dissected the heads of modern humans and apes, mapping patterns of soft tissue and bone. He used this information to fill out the features of the fossils. Each sculpture starts with the cast of a fossilized skull; Gurche then adds layers of clay muscle, fat and skin. Seven of his finished hominid busts will be featured at the National Museum of Natural History’s David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, which opens March 17. They are perhaps the best-researched renderings of their kind.

Gurche, a “paleo-artist,” even molds the hominids’ eyes out of acrylic plastic, eschewing pre-fabricated versions. “If you want the eyes to be the window to the soul,” Gurche says, “you have to make them with some depth.”

The sculpture above is of Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, which walked the earth roughly three million years ago. “They still have small brains, ape-sized, very projecting faces, very flat noses,” Gurche notes. But below the neck, A. afarensis exhibited some human traits and could walk on two feet.

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