Thursday, January 26, 2017

Review: Meeting the human ancestors, face to face

Review of: Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins
Author: John Gurche
Publisher: Yale University Press
Source: Library
Grade: A

I’m with Alice (the girl of Wonderland fame) who wondered what the use was of books without pictures. Or conversations. And paleoartist John Gurche provides plenty of both in his magnificent coffee table-sized book of anthropological art, Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins.

Gurche’s sculptures and paintings of humankind’s ancestral species (hominins) are on view in the Smithsonian Institution’s Hall of Human Origins, as well as the pages of National Geographic and other publications and television specials.  In Shaping Humanity, he walks readers through his process in creating the sculptures for the Smithsonian, starting with skull and skeleton casts through the making of their eyeballs.

Yes, he makes his own eyeballs, explaining “I used to purchase artificial eyes, and when I would sometimes ask for a size outside the range common in living humans the response on the other end of the phone would first be silence, and then, in a somewhat suspicious tone, the question ‘Who is this eye for’?

“The eyes, more than any other area, must carry the illusion of life, or the sculpture will be dead, a silicone and acrylic anatomical model with no life or magic,” he writes. "There must be a sentience in the eyes, a feeling that there is someone in there.”

And although casting the acrylic eyes is a time-consuming project, full of room for mistakes, the results are worth the effort. Any defective eyes, he notes, make great Halloween decorations!

Neadertal: wikipedia
A regular at fossil excavations, with extensive dissection experience, Gurche uses the most current scientific available for his reproductions. But science can only go so far, leaving the artist to make judgments about details such as skin color, hair covering, even ear lobe placement, for which no fossil information is available.

And then, of course, there are toes, those small bones that are apt to get lost over the millennia that passed between the death of the hominin and the time its remains are discovered by modern humans.

Exactly what did the toes of Homo erectus, for example, the first hominin species known to have left the ancestral African homeland, look like? Following the scientific literature, Gurche made a best guess during the creation of his bronze statue of a female Homo erectus for the Smithsonian.

Lacking direct evidence, he used examples from what was believed to be a related species to construct feet with the big toes slightly shorter than the rest, only to have new research upset that model. The statue’s toes got chiseled to make way for a thoroughly modern-looking foot for a more than one million-year-old woman.

Gurche leads readers through both science and art in his reconstruction of nearly a dozen human ancestral and related species. And although the language of Shaping Humanity is among the most accessible I have found in books on human evolution aimed at lay readers, he includes a helpful glossary, as well as extensive bibliography for those interested in further research. In all, it’s a book both gorgeous and thought-provoking.

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