The Faces of Ancient Hominids Brought to Life in Remarkable Detail
Several years ago, a team of scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, set out to put a human face to ancient hominid species that once walked the Earth. Using sophisticated forensic methods, they created 27 model heads based on bone fragments, teeth and skulls found across the globe over the last century. The meticulously sculpted heads are the anthropological products of years of excavation in Africa, Asia, and Europe.
In the last 8 million years, at least a dozen human-like species have lived on Earth. As part of the Safari zum Urmenschen exhibition (“Safari of Early Humans”), the facial reconstructions take us on a journey through time, going back seven million years to the species sahelanthropus tchadensis, and culminating with modern-day Homo sapiens. Each face tells its own story about the lives of hominids in their respective era, including where they lived, what they ate, and their likely cause of death.
The exhibition drew much controversy when it was first launched, mainly due to scholarly debates that have raged for decades regarding the classification of these ancient species. Fossils are extremely challenging to categorise as one species or another. Only a few thousand fossils of pre-human species have ever been discovered and entire sub-species are sometimes known only from a single jaw or fragmentary skull. Furthermore, like modern-day humans, no two hominids were alike and it is difficult to determine whether variations in skull features represent distinct species or variations within the same species. For example, the recent discovery of a skull in Dmansi in Turkey suggested that a number of contemporary species of early “Homo” – Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster, and Homo erectus – are actually just variations of one species.
Bones can only say so much, and experts are forced to make educated guesses to fill in the gaps in an ancient hominid family tree that extends back 8 million years. With each new discovery, paleoanthropologists have to rewrite the origins of mankind's ancestors, adding on new branches and tracking when species split, and rather than providing answers regarding our ancient past, many discoveries simply lead to more questions.
‘Toumai’ - Sahelanthropus tchadensis
Toumai (“hope of life”) is the name given to the remains of a hominid found over a decade ago in the Djurab desert in Chad, Western Africa, belonging to the species known as Sahelanthropus tchadensis. Dating back 6.8 million years, it is one of the oldest hominid specimens ever found. Sahelanthropus tchadensis had a relatively small cranium. The braincase, being only 320 cm³ to 380 cm³ in volume, is similar to that of existing chimpanzees and is notably less than the average human volume of 1350 cm³.
Australopithecus afarensis, is believed to have lived between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago and had a brain capacity between 380 and 430 cc. A number of remains of this species have been found in Ethiopia, including the individual modelled above, whose skull and jaw were found among the remains of seventeen others (nine adults, three adolescents and five children) in the Afar Region of Ethiopia in 1975. The most well-known example of an Australopithecus afarensis is “Lucy”, a 3.2 million-year-old nearly complete skeleton found in Hader.
“Mrs Ples” - Australopithecus africanus
"Mrs Ples" is the popular nickname for the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus, unearthed in Sterkfontein, South Africa in 1947. Although the sex of the fossil is not entirely certain, ‘she’ was a middle-aged individual who lived 2.5 million years ago and had a brain capacity of 485 cc. Mrs Ples died when she fell into a chalk pit and her remains were preserved when the pit later filled with sediment. The Australopithecus africanus species, which lived in southern African between 3 and 2 million years ago, has long puzzled scientists because of its massive jaws and teeth, but they now believe the skull design was optimal for cracking nuts and seeds.
“Black Skull” - Paranthropus aethiopicus
Paranthropus aethiopicus is a species of hominid that is believed to have lived between 2.7 and 2.5 million years ago. Very little is known about them because so few remains have been found. The individual depicted has been reconstructed from the skull of a male adult found on the west shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1985. He became known as “Black Skull’ due to the dark colouration of the bone caused by high levels of manganese. Black Skull had a cranial capacity of 410 cc, and the shape of his mouth indicates that he had a strong bite and could chew plants.