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

evolution faces
"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

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.

Australopithecus africanus

Australopithecus africanus
(Courtesy of John Gurche)

This species lived about 2.5 million years ago and, like A. afarensis, is thought by some paleoanthropologists to be one of our direct ancestors. “I wanted to get an expression that captures something that both humans and great apes do, though the meaning is a little different,” Gurche says. “I wanted to build a smile, but a smile with a lot of tension in it. You might even call it a nervous smile, like the fear grin of the chimpanzee.”

Paranthropus boisei

Paranthropus boisei
(Courtesy of John Gurche)

Gurche calls P. boisei “the chewing machine,” as it had outrageously large cheekbones and a crest on the top of its head to anchor powerful jaw muscles. Its molars had four times the surface area of ours, the better to grind through tough roots. Though P. boisei lived between 2.3 and 1.2 million years ago, the species is not our direct ancestor; it represents a side branch of our family tree that died out. While Homo erectus, which lived at about the same time, was sampling meat, P. boisei remained a devout vegetarian, which is why, Gurche says, “the expression I was going for was a sort of bovine contentment.”

Homo erectus

Homo Erectus
(Courtesy of John Gurche)

The brain of Homo erectus, who emerged 1.8 million years ago, was almost two-thirds as large as our own. H. erectus made tools and its body proportions were similar to a modern human’s.

Homo heidelbergensis

Homo heidelbergensis
(Courtesy of John Gurche)

Appearing 700,000 years ago, Homo heidelbergensis is closely related to our own species. “It has huge brow ridges,” Gurche notes. “A lot of people think that’s kind of a shock absorber for the face, that it dissipates pressure put on teeth at the front of the skull, if you are using your mouth as a clamp to grip implements or a skin.”

The huge brow ridges tempted Gurche to create a scowling expression, and in fact he had reason to believe that this particular individual wasn’t a happy camper: the model skull had nearly a dozen abscessed teeth. But “I happened to catch him in a good mood,” Gurche says. “I wanted that positive feeling to be somewhere in the line-up.”

Neanderthal

Neanderthal
(Courtesy of John Gurche)

“This is a complex being,” Gurche says of Neanderthal, Homo neanderthalensis, who disappeared some 30,000 years ago after a nearly 200,000-year run. “Some people argue that Neanderthals were as sophisticated as we are.” They buried their dead and likely used pigments to decorate their bodies and clothes. This particular Neanderthal, Gurche points out, is the only hominid in the museum series that appears to have styled its hair.

“A lot of the features of the Neanderthal face were related to cold adaptation,” Gurche says. “They have really large noses, and some people have argued that this is to warm and humidify cold, dry air as it comes in.”

Homo floresiensis

Homo floresiensis
(Courtesy of John Gurche)

A mere 18,000 years old, Homo floresiensis was tiny – only about three-and-half feet tall, with huge feet, which has led to its nickname: the Hobbit. It had a “teeny brain,” Gurche says. H. floresiensis remains something of a mystery. Some researchers originally thought the hominid, found on the island of Flores in Indonesia, was a dwarfed H. erectus. Others now think it is a different species that left Africa before H. erectus. “All I can say is, stay tuned, folks,” Gurche says.

H. floresiensis overlapped in time with Homo sapiens, and the two species may have met. “What I wanted to get into the face was a sort of wariness,” as though the primitive little hominid is really encountering a human. “What would we have seemed like to them?”