Featured Story

February 2007

Faces of the Human Past

Science and art combine to create a new portrait gallery of our hominid heritage.



See the American Museum’s Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins.


Portrait of a three-year-old female Australopithecus afarensis is based on a fossil recently unearthed at Dikika, a site in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia. An early bipedal ape that stood three and a half to four and a half feet tall when fully grown, the species was first known from the famous "Lucy" skeleton discovered just six miles from Dikika in 1974. It had a chimpanzee-size brain but humanlike tooth patterns. Lucy lived 3.2 million years ago; the Dikika child dates from 3.3 million years ago.
Judging from their astonishing paintings and engraved images of animals on the walls of European caves—works that have somehow survived since prehistoric times—people have been making pictures for at least thirty millennia, and probably for a lot longer. In contrast, attempts by scientists and artists of our own day to make credible likenesses of the cave painters and their more remote evolutionary antecedents go back a mere 150 years. In fact, scientific evidence for prehistoric humans was not generally recognized much before then.

One of the earliest published reports was that of the English antiquarian John Frere, who in 1800 presented his Account of Flint Weapons Discovered at Hoxne in Suffolk. Workmen digging clay for bricks had come across finely worked flint hand axes in a layer of gravelly soil, sealed beneath a sandy layer sprinkled with mammoth bones. Frere concluded that the tools were “fabricated and used by a people who had not the use of metals. [They lived in] a very remote period indeed; even beyond that of the present world.”

Although Frere’s discovery went unnoticed until long after his death, further evidence of early humans continued to accumulate. Following the lead of the French prehistorian Jacques Boucher de Perthes, who trained workmen to search for stone hand axes in the 1840s, others began to seek and find quantities of prehistoric stone tools all over Europe. Part of a fossilized Neanderthal skull was discovered in a cave in the Neander Valley, near Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1856, a find that brought the term “caveman” into popular culture.



Adult males of the species Ardipithecus ramidus brandish branches to frighten off a rival band of hominids. The reconstruction is particularly speculative, because the species is still poorly known. Although a remarkably complete skeleton was discovered in Ethiopia in 1994, its condition is delicate, hampering its preparation and scientific description. The fossils date from 4.4 million years ago, making A. ramidus one of the earliest hominids discovered so far, but it is not considered ancestral to humans.

Beginning in 1858, when rich prehistoric deposits were discovered at Brixham Cave at Torquay, in Devon, England, the archaeologist William Pengelly developed revolutionary new techniques for conducting excavations. His systematic work at Brixham and nearby Kent’s Cavern over the next two decades yielded tens of thousands of fossil animal bones and early human artifacts, and established their association in time.

Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species shook the world in 1859 with its one-two punch: evolution by natural selection, coupled with the immensity of geologic time. The impact was seismic, but even before the book appeared, discoveries that ancient humans had lived with extinct mammoths and rhinoceroses in Britain had caused many to question traditional beliefs about human origins. In 1851 the art critic John Ruskin had lamented in a letter to a friend that his trust in biblical authority was being daily eroded by “those dreadful [geologists’] hammers.” “I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses,” he wrote. Now cavemen began to challenge Adam and Eve as primal ancestors in the popular imagination.

It turned out that some of the ancient “cavemen” were fine artists. In 1879 the first-known painted cave was accidentally discovered at Altamira, Spain; its images of extinct aurochs, bison, and horses stunned both the art and scientific worlds. Only rarely, however, had the ancient artists portrayed themselves, and never with the sophisticated realism they had applied to other animals. That state of affairs cried out for modern artists to reconstruct the appearance of what became an expanding roster of extinct humans and near-humans. The nascent genre of paleoart, which had originated to visualize dinosaurs and other fossil animals, expanded to portray extinct humans as well.

John Lubbock, Darwin’s informal (and only) student, commissioned some of the first paintings in the new genre. The scion of a banking family that owned much of the Kentish countryside surrounding Darwin’s home, Lubbock decorated his indulgent father’s mansion with a collection of primitive stone tools, ethnographic artifacts, glass-enclosed colonies of social insects, and eighteen watercolor paintings of early humans going about their daily lives. The paintings, which Lubbock sponsored during the 1870s, were the work of Ernest Griset, an outstanding natural-history illustrator whose anthropomorphic animal drawings often lent whimsy to the pages of the magazine Punch. Lubbock himself had coined the terms Paleolithic and Neolithic, meaning old and new stone ages, respectively, in his landmark book, Pre-Historic Times, which appeared in 1865. The book also includes the earliest printed usage of the word “cave-man.”


Paranthropus boisei was a hominid with huge molars backed by powerful jaw muscles, inspiring the nickname “Nutcracker man” when the paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey discovered the first cranium of the species at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, in 1959. P. boisei, which dates from 1.8 million years ago, may have made some of the earliest crude stone tools, also found at Olduvai, but the fossils and tools are not firmly linked. Additional finds of P. boisei fossils have come from deposits near Kenya’s Lake Turkana, which have also yielded early bones of the genus Homo, showing that the two hominids may have coexisted at the same time and place.

The undisputed king of the paleoartists was Charles R. Knight (1874–1953), who inspired all who came after him. The imperious paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City from 1908 until 1933, hired the gifted young painter and teamed him with the museum’s best anatomists and paleontologists. Together the teams created the most accurate and realistic reconstructions of ancient animals and early humans and near-humans that had ever been attempted. But Knight also relied on the caveman artists for his portrayals of Ice Age animals. When, in 1927, he visited the French painted caves to see the Ice Age artists’ paintings firsthand, he had what he later described as “a distinct feeling of awe and admiration for the skill of the man who had painted and incised their curious outlines thousands of years ago.”

One of today’s preeminent paleoartists is Jay H. Matternes, based in Fairfax, Virginia, whose paintings are informed by his rich knowledge of primate anatomy and behavior. Knight often prepared for his painting of animals and cavemen by creating sculptures as reference points, carrying them onto the roof of his New York City studio at various times of day to observe where the shadows fell. Matternes has adopted the same technique. “Making a preliminary sculpture, even a quick one, to study light and shadow is a device frequently used by artists, and I have used it often,” he writes.

One of the latest fruits of the vigorous tradition in paleoart is the creative collaboration between the physical anthropologist Gary J. Sawyer of the American Museum and the paleoartist Viktor Deak. (A selection of their depictions of our early relatives accompanies this article.) In their collaboration Sawyer and Deak also make sculptural busts of the ancient hominids, reflecting their knowledge of anatomy as well as clues from muscle attachments that occur in the fossil bones. Superficial features of hair and skin are partly a matter of guesswork, based on the appearance of modern humans and apes. Deak then photographs the busts, and may finally retouch the images digitally on a computer. [See “Dissection in Reverse,” below.]


Dissection in Reverse

To reconstruct an extinct hominid, the collaborating artist and scientist first make a urethane cast of a skull and jaw. In this example, the artist Viktor Deak and the physical anthropologist Gary J. Sawyer base their reconstruction on a 400,000-year-old skull excavated from the Spanish site of Atapuerca, a fossil some have classified as Homo heidelbergensis. With data from dissections of present-day animals and humans—which they and others have conducted—they meticulously rebuild layers of muscles, glands, and other tissue onto a cast of the skull, using carefully measured strips of modeling clay. The technique is known as “dissection in reverse.”

Move mouse arrow over numbers to view the dissection in reverse.


1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Both Sawyer and Deak had a childhood obsession with prehistoric humans and near-humans. Sawyer, a New Jersey native, was inspired by Knight’s classic murals of dinosaurs, mammoths, and cavemen at the American Museum. Deak grew up in a leafy, suburban Connecticut town that may seem an unlikely place to dream about living the life of Neanderthals. In 1991, however, at age fourteen, he viewed a National Geographic television program in a science class, which showed how the paleoartist John Gurche sculpted a reconstruction of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis. “I was bitten by the bug,” Deak recalls. “I knew immediately that I wanted to do what he did. . . . I see myself in these people, living thousands of years ago. I’m haunted by going back in time.”


Reconstruction of a Neanderthal (H. neanderthalensis) is based on a 50,000-year- old skull found at La Ferrassie, a rockshelter in the Dordogne region of France. The site yielded the intentionally buried remains of eight individuals. Although Neanderthals had brains as large as those of modern humans (H. sapiens), many scholars believe the two lineages parted ways more than 500,000 years ago.

As the young Deak sketched fantasies of the remote past, he did not yet realize that he would need a scientific accomplice to discipline and focus his talents. When he was twenty-six, however, he met Sawyer, who was looking at the time for an artist to work with him on reconstructions of early humans. Their partnership exemplifies a long tradition of cross-fertilization between knowledge and skill, observation and vision.

In Darwin’s day, people asked, “Where is the missing link?” Today, as previously unknown varieties of humans and near-humans continue to be identified, keeping up with the pace of discovery is a continual challenge. There are so many “missing links” that paleoanthropologists don’t know what to do with them all. In place of the lineal tree trunk familiar to paleoartists until the mid-1960s, paleoanthropologists have since adopted a complex branching bush that reflects the fact that several kinds of humans lived on Earth at the same time and in some of the same places.

Many more species and fossils are known today than ever before, and new polyester resins, rubbers, and plastics give the paleoartist finer tools that make it possible to render ever greater accuracy of form. Furthermore, today’s paleoanthropologists can borrow the computer techniques of forensic medicine for analyzing data, creating sections of fossils through virtually any plane, or restoring the original shape of skulls that have been crushed or distorted by geological pressures. Texture, hair color, and skin are still matters of artistic interpretation, though work with ancient DNA may eventually shed light on those areas, too.

The best artist-scientist teams attempt to keep their imaginations in check, and treat the emerging likeness of a prehistoric face as a puzzle to be solved, according to strict rules of the game. As Gurche puts it, referring to an 8-million-year-old fossil ape discovered in Greece in 1990:

The final form of the animal is often a surprise—I try not to let any preconceptions guide me. I didn’t expect Ouranopithecus to look as gorilla-like as it does, for example, but when I followed the process I’ve developed from great-ape facial dissection, that’s just the way it came out.

We humans seem incapable of gazing, Hamlet-like, at a bit of skull or jawbone without trying to conjure up an image of how its owner appeared in life—and how similar or different was the appearance of its face from our own. Some of the homes of royal or wealthy European families house impressive galleries of ancestral portraits that go back ten or twenty generations, but most of us count ourselves fortunate to have a faded photo of our great-grandparents. And yet, in each generation, a few talented anthropologists, anatomists, and paleoartists—eternally optimistic—combine their skills in the attempt to show us all what our ancestors looked like, a hundred thousand generations ago.



Gary J. Sawyer (left) and
Viktor Deak (right), with friends


The images by Viktor Deak and Gary J. Sawyer that accompany this essay are used with the kind permission of Nèvraumont Publishing Company, from the forthcoming book, The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-two Species of Extinct Humans, created by G. J. Sawyer and Viktor Deak, and produced by Nèvraumont Publishing Company, with a text by Esteban Sarmiento, G. J. Sawyer, and Richard Milner and contributions by Donald C. Johanson, Click cover for ordering information.Meave Leakey, and Ian Tattersall. The book is being published this month by Yale University Press. Many of the portraits have also been incorporated in the new hall of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, scheduled to open to the public this February.

Additional Images of Extinct Humans

Illustrations by Viktor Deak and Gary J. Sawyer
(Click thumbnail images for large view.)












Richard MilnerIan Tattersall
Richard Milner and Ian Tattersall have been closely following the reconstructions of early hominids by Gary J. Sawyer and Viktor Deak, some of which will appear in a new hall of human origins that opens this month at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The reconstructions also appear in the book The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-two Species of Extinct Humans, which is being published this month by Yale University Press, and from which the photographs that accompany this article have been selected. Milner is an associate in anthropology at the American Museum, and a contributing editor at this magazine. His book Darwin’s Universe will be published this year by the University of California Press. Tattersall, a curator in the division of anthropology at the American Museum, oversaw the installation of the museum’s Hall of Human Biology and Evolution in 1993 and has been co-curator of its newly updated successor [See the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins]. A frequent contributor to Natural History, Tattersall is the author of several books, most recently, with Rob DeSalle, Human Origins: What Bones and Genomes Tell Us about Ourselves, which will be published this month by Texas A&M University Press.


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