The Subjective Process of Reconstructing Our Distant Relatives
by Sydney Steidl, age 15
If you have ever been to a historical museum, you may feel like you have a solid understanding of what our ancestors look like. In reality, they may not have looked the way in which they are commonly portrayed. The facial reconstruction of hominids has been highly subjective, with artists and scientists alike letting biases greatly impact their results.
Hominids are our distant ancestors whose evolutionary history is shared with the great apes. When picturing any hominids, especially the Neanderthals, it is easy for a standard image to come to mind. A widely recognized feature is long, tangled, filthy hair, despite being mostly baseless. Since hair does not preserve well in fossils, its hygienic quality has been left to speculation and there is no evidential reason to believe that hominids would be different from any other animals with decent grooming habits. As Ryan Campbell at the University of Adelaide said, “there is a bias toward portraying our ancestors as if they were stupid and didn’t have hygiene.” This falls into the long-running pattern of letting bias impact the hypothesized features of hominids to make oneself look superior, both in behavior and intelligence.
This pattern has also proven to have major racial implications. An exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History depicts lightening skin on the hominids as they evolve towards walking upright. This idea, which is anything but new, does not have any evidence behind it and blatantly portrays black people as less evolved than white people. The association of lightened skin with evolution has consistently been used as justification for centuries of racism and it is clear that bias was deeply incorporated.
Rui Diogo, a biological anthropologist at Howard University, sought a method to minimize these biases and, therefore, make the depictions of hominids more accurate. His scientific team has used the muscles of primates to create a database and a list of guidelines for the future reconstruction of hominid faces based on their bone structure. As he stated, “the reconstructions of the past, most of them did not have a scientific basis. Our goal is to change the methods and to change the biases.”
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