The Hall of Human Origins
at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington is a magnet for tourists.
Five life-size bronze dioramas weave a tale of everyday life stretching back more than 6 million years. Visitors feel the burden of a homo erectus 1.5 million years ago as she carries a freshly killed antelope, and the fear of a wild-haired homo floresiensis, surprised by a predator 18,000 years ago. Children climb on, under and around these extinct ancestors in this ancient playground.
It’s the work of paleo-artist John Gurche
. So are reproductions of hominid heads displayed in glass cases. Gurche—who specializes in depicting subjects linked to our prehistoric ancestors—comes armed with knowledge of ape and human anatomy.
But, unlike dissection, which he’s also studied, creating the large figures and the heads requires him to work, layer by layer, from the inside out.
“Really to succeed in doing one of these reconstructions, it has to be something you can relate to as a living being, that you almost expect to see breathe," Gurche said, "and you also have to base it on the best science available or else you just have a fantasy.”
Gurche brings faces from the past to life. He starts with a plaster cast of a skull, adds clay and sculpts a face. He covers the work in silicone and adds facial details, color and texture, tediously attaching hair, strand by strand. He says what really animates the work are the eyes.
“I’m trying to build out an impression, that there’s someone home," he said. "When you look one of these in the eyes you feel that there’s someone there. There's some presence. It really feels like it is more than just clay and plaster. Hopefully people will be a little creeped out by the final result, because they are expecting to see an inanimate object, but what they are seeing is something that has a little bit of a soul.”
On the other hand, the bronze scenes capture a moment in time at the crossroads of human evolution. As they walk through the exhibit, visitors follow in their ancestors' footsteps, observing how early hominids first walk on two feet, develop bigger brains, discover fire, forage for food and respond to danger.
“Human evolution as revealed by the fossil record is not just a matter of everything we think of as human, starts sort of evolving in tandem together until you have modern humans," Gurche said. "It's much more of a mosaic affair, where different things are added at different times. So each species that is a candidate for human ancestry has its own piece of the human puzzle that it added to the mix.”
Gurche makes detailed sketches of everything he does, referring to fossils and plaster casts from across a species to create forensically accurate work. For the full figures, he builds skeletons and fleshes out their bodies on a metal armature before he casts the bronze.
The result attracts the attention of 6-year-old Jordan Ramsey, who reaches for the outstretched hand of a Homo heidelbergensis, who is offering food from his camp fire. The time is 200,000 years ago, when our now extinct relatives hunted animals and shared the kill.
Another scene records an intimate moment in Neanderthal life. Gurche portrays a toddler watching intently as his mother pokes holes in an animal hide that she’s holding tightly in her teeth.
“He’s got a piece of skin also and he’s wondering about what she’s doing and whether he should do the same thing," Gurche said. "He’s got that kind of quizzical tilt of his head. And she is responding with a lot of joy. Hopefully you see some encouragement there in her expression.”
These are not emotions that Stacy Weinberg, who visited with her two children, would typically associate with the humans that lived 70,000 years ago.
“We tend to think that we have evolved more and are more intelligent than people that long ago, but it's cute because it is a very similar position to one that we might be in today,” she said.
That's exactly the connection Gurche hopes his work inspires. Creating them, getting inside and sculpting their ancient bones, muscles and bodies, he says, is a visceral experience, one that has given him new perspective on life.
“I think that when you look at modern humans in the context of our evolutionary history and of the wider evolutionary history of life on earth, humans really emerge as something miraculous.”