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New representations of ancient hominids seek to overcome artistic biases

Representations of extinct human ancestors and cousins ​​tend to be more art than science.

Take, for example, two reconstructions of the Taung boy, a 2.8 million-year-old Australopithecus africanus skull discovered in South Africa in 1924. A version, made using a sculptor’s intuition, looks more alike. A second version, made while working alongside a scientist, looks more human.

Now, the researchers who produced the mourning images are trying to eliminate some of this subjectivity by introducing standards that can give more accurate and reproducible portraits of known species only from fossilized bone. The team points to some of the flaws in the facial reconstructions of ancient hominids – and the social and ethical implications that misleading portraits may have – in a report published Feb. 26 in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

These two reconstructions of the Taung child depend on subjective decisions to make him look more like (left) or human (right).G. Viñas, R.M. Campbell, M. Henneberg, and R. Diogo

Correct representations are important, says Rui Diogo, a biological anthropologist at Howard University in Washington, D.C. When museum visitors see performances of extinct Neanderthals or hominids by artists, visitors often don’t realize how much bias enters the work. “They think it’s the reality,” he says. And that can distort people’s opinions and reinforce the existing prejudices of today’s people.

For example, reconstructions of multiple extinct hominids at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., portray increasingly clear skin as species become more and more bipedal. “But there’s no evidence to say the skin was whiter,” Diogo says. Such a representation may give the wrong impression that people with lighter skin are more evolved.

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Representations of artists can also give erroneous views on human evolution and the intelligence and behavior of extinct species, says Ryan Campbell, co-author of Diogo, an anatomical scientist and physical anthropologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia. For example, Neanderthals are often portrayed as having tangled, dirty hair. “It’s like there’s a bias towards portraying our ancestors as if they were stupid and unhygienic,” he says.

But animals of all kinds prepare and there is no reason to think that Neanderthals or other extinct hominids were different. In fact, presenting hairless reconstructions may be more accurate, Campbell says. Hair is not normally preserved in fossils and bone DNA data may hint at hair color, but do not reveal grooming habits.

three views of an exploration of a skullAccurate artistic representations of extinct hominids begin with accurate explorations of skeletal finds, such as this digitization of a cast made from the original fossil of the Taung infant skull.G. Viñas, R.M. Campbell, M. Henneberg, and R. Diogo

“Rebuilding hair is not even an informed speculation,” Campbell says. "It's an imaginary speculation."

Scientists and artists often work together to produce reconstructions, but the choices they make may be more motivated by whim than by science, the researchers argue. By studying the muscles of great apes and other nonhuman primates, Diogo and his colleagues built reference databases that scientists could use to reconstruct faces from fossils. Still, if a sculptor chooses the muscles of chimpanzees or humans as a starting point it can produce very different results.

“Reconstructions of the past, most of them had no scientific basis,” says Diogo. “Our goal is to change methods and change prejudices” to give a more accurate view of human evolution.

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