/ 9 October 2014

The next best thing to a time machine

Reconstruction of Sahelanthropus tchadensis
Reconstruction of Sahelanthropus tchadensis

A “man” stands naked in the centre of the studio. In the dim light cast from a lamp on a nearby table, you can see the threads of muscles running down his arms and cording up his legs.

But something is wrong: his chest does not expand with air, he does not shift his balance, and when a white-haired man with a scalpel moves toward him, he doesn’t flinch.

John Gurche, palaeoartist and creator of lifelike hominid reconstructions, says that sometimes when he is on his own at night, looking down at his notes detailing the science of what these long-dead creatures looked like, “you look up to find your creation looking at you. Rationally, you know that it is a thing of clay and plaster, but it feels like a living presence.

“It is like writing fiction: if you wish to fool others, you first have to fool yourself.”

Gurche, whose reconstructions grace the Smithsonian Institution’s new Hall of Human Origins in Washington, DC, and who worked as a consultant on the set of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, will deliver the 10th Standard Bank/PAST Phillip Tobias memorial lecture, titled The Ancestral Connection: Portraits of our Prehistoric Human Family, at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on October 16.

This is not Gurche’s first trip to the country. His CV is littered with collaborations with Wits University, and he says, jokingly, that it is South Africa’s fault that he keeps coming back.

“Wits is home to one of the world’s best collections of fossil hominids (human ancestors and evolutionary cousins), so I’ve been coming here since the 1980s to study them and reconstruct their faces and bodies.

“If Lee [Berger, professor in the Institute of Human Evolution at Wits] will stop finding these fantastic fossils, I can stop coming here.”

Berger, who discovered the possible human ancestor Australopithicus sediba in 2008, last year headed up the National Geographic Rising Star expedition, following the discovery in the Cradle of Humankind of what he calls “the richest early hominid site in South Africa, including Sterkfontein”.

The world-renowned palaeoscientist, who is also an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, has not given any indication of the number of fossils that have been found at the Cradle site or what species or ages they are – and neither will Gurche, who is also working on the project.

There is more to being a palaeoartist than translating science into the tangible and visual, says Gurche, who sees himself as a storyteller.

With a background in geology, focusing on palaeontology, and a masters degree in anthropology, the science was not enough for Gurche. “I had a great deal of wonder for the field, and this was not expressed by taking the straight academic path … I build ancient faces because I want to see them. It’s the next best thing to a time machine …

Conveying the wonder
“The world – worlds? – that science reveals is breathtaking, full of wonder. But the language of science is not accessible to many people. To convey that wonder, or even just to create an image that communicates what the scientific literature is saying, you need art,” he says, arguing that this is an example of science serving art. “Science can feel like a muse to the artist.”

But in this case, the muse is a collection of bones, painstakingly excavated from the ground over the course of years. In the coffee room in the Bernard Price Institute at Wits, the researchers have a puzzle on the table to help them to sharpen their visual abilities for piecing together ancient fossils.

When it comes to palaeoscience, these researchers have to put together a puzzle without knowing much of the picture in advance, and Gurche in effect has to colour it in.

He has been dissecting the faces of humans and great apes such as chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans for 30 years.

“The quest in these studies has always been to find ways of predicting soft tissues when all you have are bones.

“It turns out that there are quite a few soft tissue variables in members of this group [great apes and humans] that are correlated with bony variables, allowing their prediction for extinct forms.

“All of these individual predicted anatomical variables come together cumulatively in a face, and the final look of it is often something of a surprise to me.”

He starts with the fossil fragments, because these bones contain a wealth of information, such as the proportions of the hominid and the size of the muscles attached to the bone. Using these data, he creates a scaffold of metal and layers on the muscles using clay. Each rippled cord of muscle is individually attached.

Characters in a novel
But the ancient face that stares back from Gurche’s Homo neanderthalensis sculpture has a personality: you can see it in the vulnerability in its eyes, the creases in the brow that look like worry lines. Although the artworks are based on science and he wants “to stick to the scientific data … the challenge was to get the important parts of the evolutionary story of each ancestor into the sculpture, almost like the characters in a novel”.

He says it is possible to do both the “data-driven reconstruction and the expressive sculpture, if you change hats quickly enough”.

Asked why he chose this niche of using art to portray science, which has won him many awards, including the John Landsendorf Award for Palaeoart, he says: “Art can convey the identity of an individual or species in ways that words cannot. We are not entirely rational beings, so often words and numbers are just not enough. We need to see a face.”

It would appear – from the awards, television collaborations, the Human Origins exhibition at the Smithsonian and the fact that his art has graced the covers of National Geographic, Science and Scientific American – that there is a demand for scientific art, but Gurche says that he has no idea what people want to see.

“When I see a reality TV show about housewives in Beverly Hills or some fashion runway show, and I know that people watch these things voluntarily, I know I’m out of touch with the public.”

John Gurche will be speaking at The Wits Great Hall on Thursday at 6.30pm. Entrance is free and no booking is necessary. For more information visit www.past.org.za