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Dmanisi Early Human Reconstructed
Posted Sep 21,2007

Chris_female_3lr_2 In the current issue of Nature you’ll find a much-awaited report on the bodies (as opposed to the heads) of the folks that lived at Dmanisi in Georgia (the former Soviet Republic) about two million years ago. The report was much-awaited because only the heads of four of the individuals discovered there have been thoroughly reported. That left many of us wondering what their bodies were like.

We knew their brains were small and early estimates of their height and weight showed they were small in body as well, but we didn’t have a good sense of their body proportions or skeletal details from the neck down. And the reason why we cared about their bodies so much was that a paradigm was about to be broken.

That paradigm was the idea that it took big brains, handaxes, and big bodies (with long walking legs) in order for our human ancestors to first get out of Africa. We knew that the hominins at Dmanisi, the earliest known hominins found outside Africa, had small brains and didn’t use handaxes, but now the news is that while their upper bodies maintained primitive features linked to tree-climbing, they had good walking legs, essentially like ours. So only one third of the paradigm, the part about needing walking legs, still holds.

In the course of figuring out how to report on this I learned from David Lordkipanidze, the lead scientist at Dmanisi and a National Geographic grantee, that he had engaged a talented French paleoartist, Elisabeth Daynes, to create a likeness of one of the hominins from Dmanisi (see top image). It had never been seen before. I knew Elisabeth well from having worked with her on a reconstruction of King Tut  back in 2005, so I called to see if we could use a photo of the model. I’m very pleased that she and David permitted our website to be the place where that model is making its premiere (see photo below of David in Elisabeth's studio).


There was a bit of dejá vu in this for me, however, because I had been involved in reconstructing this exact same hominin from Dmanisi, known as the subadult D2700, twice before. The first time was with Spanish paleoartist artist,  Mauricio Anton , back in 2002 when NGM did its first article. Mauricio had painstakingly prepared a sculptural reconstruction of D2700 before doing a painting that ended up on the NGM cover in August 2002. The second was with American paleoartist John Gurche , who sculpted four Dmanisi heads for us (only three ran in the article, which ran in April 2005).                                                      
I was dying to go back into my archives to pull out images of the development of Mauricio’s painting and Gurche’s sculpture to compare it to Elisabeth’s. The reason was not to see if one artist was better than another, these three artists are the best in the business. No, the reason was to see how much latitude there was in interpreting what D2700 looked like. In other words, how much can we say is science in these reconstructions and how much is art? Or, as skeptics might put it, how much is real and how much is fake?

I knew that both Elisabeth, Mauricio, and John used similar methods in their reconstructions. Both approach their reconstructions with great attention to the evidence at hand (the bones); great anatomical knowledge of musculature, skin, etc.; stacks of data on ape and human tissue depths; and expert advice from David. So, in broad strokes, any similarities between their two results could be seen as scientifically based and any differences as aesthetically based.

So here are the results. Reconstructions_3

I see similarities in the brow, big mouth full of teeth, lack of chin, and prominent cheekbones. These are all easily seen in the skull. But the noses vary widely, with Mauricio’s being most apelike and Elisabeth’s being most modern-looking. Facial skin wrinkling is another area where these reconstructions differ, not to mention hair (including the beard Mauricio put on D2700 before we heard that this specimen was probably female). And all of this latter stuff is related to soft-tissue. I guess it is not surprising that once the artists depart from the bone and have to make educated guesses about soft tissue, they start shifting away from science into informed speculation and ultimately, art. This is a fascinating comparison that we don’t often get to see. There is a haunting similarity between the reconstructions, but I don’t think, if I saw these characters walking on the street, that I would have guessed they were even from the same family. What do you think?

Here are some comments on this set of pictures and the reconstruction process.

Daynes: Elisabeth starts by laying clay muscles over the skull (1). The little sticks are tissue depth markers that serve as a guide for how deep skin might be over bones. Paleoartists use a variety of sources for tissue depth information, ranging from police forensic archives to dissections of great apes. The next step was to place skin over the musculature (2). The final clay construction (3) shows what a cast will be made from. It is interesting to note that while she chose eyeballs with dark irises, they still have “whites.” This is one thing that distinguishes human from ape eyes. By giving this early human eye whites, Elisabeth is implying that it was already using its eyes for sophisticated nonverbal communication, like we do.

Anton: Mauricio had very little time to prepare his reconstruction. Using his understanding of animal anatomy, he laid in musculature (1), and skin (2). Instead of making a three dimensional reconstruction, Mauricio proceeded to use his model to make a drawing (3) which led to a final painting (4). Notice that this painting shows a bit wilder appearance than what finally appeared on the cover of National Geographic (see Final Reconstruction 3). The editors decided that a less "wild" appearance would be better for the cover.

Gurche: I don’t have step-by-step photos of John’s work, but I can assure you that he uses his knowledge of anatomy, as the other artists did, to arrive at this reconstruction. Over the years John has developed his own database of tissue depths based on dissections of apes and humans. Of the three artists, he has  more experience reconstructing human ancestors and takes a particular interest in how the details of anatomy impact the final appearance of a model.
Do it yourself
Wanna take a crack at reconstructing D2700 yourself? I’m going to try and I’ll post the result. Send me what you come up with (stonesbonesnthings@gmail.com) and I’ll post it, too. The pix at right are all you need to start.

Tip: An expert in forensic reconstructions (the kind the police do to find identify skeletons) told me that you can get a pretty good likeness by just putting a 1/4 inch thick layer of skin over a skull. This helps if you don't have tissue depth information at your fingertips.

Other related links:
National Geographic News
Georgia National Museum
Lanzendorf Award for Paleo Art


Dmanisi hominid reconstruction and Lordkipanidze in Dayne's studio©2007 Ph.Plailly/Eurelios. Reconstruction E.Daynes

Anton reconstruction: © Mauricio Anton

Posted by National Geographic Staff | Comments (2)
Filed Under: Anthropology, Biology, Expedition, Paleontology, Research, Science
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Sep 21, 2007 8PM #

Interesting, I have a complete theory about the relation of these ancient hominidae and present day homo sapiens sapiens

Papers Research
Sep 21, 2007 8PM #

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

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