News / Arts & Entertainment

Smithsonian Artist Brings Faces from Past to Life

Paleo-Artist Breathes New Life Into Ancient Humansi
X
January 23, 2014 11:00 PM
A popular exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington explores the story of human evolution. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the paleo-artist who sculpts ancient humans creates a world that 21st century Homo sapiens can relate to.
Rosanne Skirble
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. 
Paleo-Artist Breathes New Life Into Ancient Humans
Paleo-Artist Breathes New Life Into Ancient Humansi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

It’s the work of paleo-artist John Gurche. So are reproductions of hominid heads displayed in glass cases. Gurchewho specializes in depicting subjects linked to our prehistoric ancestorscomes 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.” 

  • Paleoartist John Gurche’s reconstructions span more than six million years of human evolution. (John Gurche, “Shaping Humanity”)
  • Reconstructions begin with a cast of a skull. Unlike dissection, the artist works from the inside out, layer by layer. (John Gurche, “Shaping Humanity”)
  • The artist takes cues from the fossilized skull and knowledge of human and ape anatomy to create forensically accurate models. (John Gurche, “Shaping Humanity”)
  • This small human-like creature, Australopithecus afarensis, lived 3.2 million years ago and walked upright on two feet. (John Gurche, ”Shaping Humanity")
  • This Paranthropus boisei, cast in bronze, is shown going about his daily life about 2 million years ago. (John Gurche, “Shaping Humanity”)
  • Reaching back 1.5 million years in human history, John Gurche begins his study of Homo erectus with a series of drawings. (John Gurche, “Shaping Humanity”)
  • John Gurche builds an armature for Homo erectus and models the muscles on a live human figure. (John Gurche, “Shaping Humanity”)
  • The resulting bronze sculpture in the Human Origins exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. (John Gurche, “Shaping Humanity”)
  • Homo heidelbergensis depicted at a camp fire around 200,000 years ago. (John Gurche, “Shaping Humanity”)
  • A series of drawings begins the work on Neanderthals in the exhibit. (John Gurche, “Shaping Humanity”)
  • John Gurche creates an intimate moment between a Neanderthal mother and her child that might have taken place 70,000 years ago. (John Gurche, “Shaping Humanity”)
  • A scene of motherly love among Neanderthals is an unexpected surprise for tourists. (John Gurche, “Shaping Humanity”)
  • A Homo floresiensis is caught in a moment of surprise, perhaps by an attack by a predator 18,000 years ago. (John Gurche, “Shaping Humanity”)
  • John Gurche’s studio is crowded with the bones, casts and skulls he refers to in his work. (John Gurche)
  • A worktable with tools of the trade. (John Gurche)

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.”

You May Like

Photogallery Early Nigeria Results Show Buhari Leading; Tampering Concerns Mount

One local group monitoring polls is concerned politicians might use security agencies to 'fiddle with the election collation process' at state level More

UN: 7,300 Civilians Killed in Boko Haram Insurgency

A senior UN humanitarian official tells the United Nations Security Council 1,000 people have been killed this year More

Turkish President Warns Iran About Trying to Dominate Middle East

Warning comes amid growing concerns inside Turkey that it will be sucked into a sectarian conflict with its neighbor More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadistsi
X
Greg Flakus
March 30, 2015 6:48 PM
At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video With Coalition Airstrikes, Iraq Entering 'Last Page' of IS Battle

American warplanes joined Iraq's battle against the so-called 'Islamic State' in northern Iraq late Wednesday, as Iraqi ground troops launched a massive assault on Tikrit. Analysts say the offensive could take the coalition a step further towards Mosul, the largest city held by Islamic State forces. Others say it could also deepen already-dangerous sectarian tensions in the region. VOA's Heather Murdock has more from Cairo.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Hi-tech Motorbike Helmet's Goal: Improve Road Safety

In cities with heavily congested traffic, people can get around much faster on a motorcycle than in a car. But a rider who is not sure of his route may have to stop to look at the map or consult a GPS. A Russian start-up company is working to make navigation easier for motorcyclists. Designers at Moscow-based LiveMap are developing a smart helmet with a built-in navigation system, head-mounted display and voice recognition. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video DOJ: Illinois National Guard Soldier Tried to Join ISIS

U.S. federal law enforcement agents arrested two suburban Chicago men accused of trying to join ISIS overseas, while also plotting attacks in the United States. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports from the Midwest state of Illinois, one of those arrested is a soldier of the Illinois National Guard.
Video

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Traditional push-rim wheelchairs create a lot of stress for arm, shoulder and neck muscles and joints. A redesigned chair, based on readily available bicycle technology, radically increases mobility while reducing the physical effort. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the latest edition of "Beyond Category" blues singer and guitarist Corey Harris performs with his band and talks about his travels in West Africa tracing the roots of the blues.