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

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. More

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

Dropout rate at an all-time high in South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during 3-year civil war More

Tennessee Songbirds Fly Coop Long Before Tornadoes Arrive

Researchers say birds apparently alerted to danger by sounds at frequencies below range of human hearing More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US: Response to Sony Hack Will Be Proportionali
X
Aru Pande
December 19, 2014 1:45 AM
The White House says President Barack Obama considers the cyberattack on Sony Corp. a serious national security matter and that the U.S. will counter with an "appropriate response." VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video US: Response to Sony Hack Will Be Proportional

The White House says President Barack Obama considers the cyberattack on Sony Corp. a serious national security matter and that the U.S. will counter with an "appropriate response." VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Putin Says Russian Economy Will Emerge Stronger

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country's sinking economy will not only recover but also become stronger, despite falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Soul Lounge

"Soul Lounge" host Shawna Renee catches up with soul singer and songwriter Russell Taylor to hear what he’s been up to since winning the VH1 "You Oughta Know" title in 2013. She also convinces him to share a few songs from his album "War of Hearts."