A group of researchers came to a conclusion that a lot of reconstructions made on early humans on display in museums were based on minimal empirical evidence.
Their review of the reconstructed facial features was published on the Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution journal last February 26, 2021, and is centered on the remains of Lucy and of a Taung child. The two represent the oldest and most complete human ancestor ever discovered. Lucy is the 3.2 million-year-old remains unearthed by researchers in 1974, while the 2.8 million-year-old Taung child died at 3 years old in what is now part of South Africa.
Using Science to Reconstruct Facial Features of Oldest Human Remains
To prove their point, the researchers reconstructed the facial features of the two oldest remains using pigmented silicone, and based on data derived from scientific calculations of how modern features may have looked millions of years ago. The result is that the Taung child’s features are nearly identical to those of the modern natives in South Africa. Lucy’s features and skin tone on the other hand, have large similarities to a bonobo, a historically known species of pygmy chimpanzee.
Still, the researchers admit that in scientifically reconstructing the remains of the Taung child and that of Lucy, they also had to make assumptions even though the child’s skull were well preserved. The reconstruction of Lucy’s facial features was more challenging as only her lower jawbone remained intact and nearly complete. Since most of Lucy’s cranial bones were missing, they do not claim that their reconstruction of Lucy’s facial feature is a good contender to becoming a reconstructed model.
Researchers’ Criticisms about Reconstructed Images Displayed in Museums
While the researchers do not claim that their reconstructions of Lucy and the Taung child’s facial features are better, neither are the versions on display in museums throughout the world. The current facial feature reconstructions were depicted by artists, who only made assumptions without taking into account the known sciences about prehistoric people. Details in support of whether the early humans looked like modern humans or more like apes were ignored; such as the softness of their tissues, including the thickness of their skin and their muscles.
Rui Diogo, a senior review researcher and an assistant professor of anatomy at Howard University, wrote
“Majority of the earlier reconstructions were highly influenced by imaginary stories about “savages” and ‘primitives’ versus concepts of what is regarded as ‘civilized‘ and ‘modern,’
Moreover, what the researchers observed about the various depictions located in different parts of the world, is that every version of Lucy displayed in museums are different. Ryan Campbell, a PhD student at the University of Adelaide’s Department of Anatomy & Pathology, and lead review researcher, said the differences are critical, as he expected to at least see consistency in the different reconstructions.
According to a sculptural artist Gabriel Vinas, who is one of the review co-researchers, while there are methods of accomplishing scientifically justified reconstructions, they have not yet mastered the technology.