Lucy gets facial reconstruction closer to reality

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New facial reconstructions by Lucy and Taung revealed a more accurate look of the two early human ancestors, who lived in Africa millions of years ago. Contrary to previous projections, the target of criticism for bringing racist and misogynistic foundations, methods and connotations to the faces of former individuals, scientists published in the magazine Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution a study to portray the face closer to reality.

In the case of Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) – the oldest and most complex human ancestor – the image was generated from the discovery in 1974 of the remains, which date back 3.2 million years ago. His lower jaw helped artists recreate his head and the team used data on the skin thickness of modern humans and inserted them into equations designed to determine the thickness of the skin at that time, in a tone similar to that of bonobos.

The child Taung (Australopithecus africanus) – who died at the age of 3 in what is now South Africa 2.8 million years ago – brought characteristics more similar to modern humans. Even though the skull of the latter was well preserved, they had to make assumptions to analyze the design of their facial tissues. Using silicone-based techniques, they duplicated the skull from another mold of the original specimen.

Due to the fact that there was no record of tissues, such as muscles, from the first humans, they had to decide on what data and techniques they would be based on. For Taung, they made two projections – one more simian and one more human – to show the difference between the two interpretations.

In the new review, the researchers pointed out that many reconstructions “were not contested by the scientific community and exhibited in museums with very little empirical evidence to support them.” A survey of reconstructions of 860 hominids – a group that includes humans, monkeys and their extinct close relatives – in 55 exhibits showed notable inconsistencies, even in those that portrayed the same individuals.

Drawing on observations of models displayed in museums around the world, study leader Ryan Campbell said that each version had a different look. “I expected to find consistency in these reconstructions displayed in natural history museums, but the differences, even there, were so serious that I almost thought that all those responsible had never encountered a single hominid reconstruction before starting to elaborate theirs.”

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