Pushing for more accurate depictions of the ancient human ancestors, scientists published new standards for representing extinct hominids in a bid to overcome artistic bias.

Depictions of these early hominids, precursors to modern humans, are largely influenced by art aside from science. An example is a discrepancy in reconstructed images of the Taung child, an Australopithecus africanus skull discovered in 1924 in South Africa, dated to be 2.8 million years old. One version, made with the sculptor's artistic license, looked more "ape-like." A second rendering, made with the guidance of a scientist, looked remarkably more humanlike.

The case study on visual reconstructions of these hominids is presented in the article "Visual Depictions of Our Evolutionary Past: A Broad Case Study Concerning the Need for Quantitative Methods of Soft Tissue Reconstruction and Art-Science Collaborations," published in the latest journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Comparison of faces of Homo sapiens (left) and Homo neanderthalensis (right)
(Photo: Daniela Hitzemann (left photograph), Stefan Scheer (right photograph) via Wikimedia Commons)
The Homo sapiens model is a reconstruction of an early (between 37,000 and 42,000 years old) European Homo sapiens based on bones found in the cave Peştera cu Oase (Romania). The basis for the reconstruction of the Neanderthal is not known. Both models are exhibits at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany. Neither the date of their production nor their creator is known. The museum opened in 1996, so this may be a reasonable terminus post quem for the Neanderthal model. The photograph dates to 2006, so the model may be assumed to have been created between 1996 and 2005. The Oase 1 fossil was discovered in 2003, and the photograph is shown here dates to 2017, so the reconstruction can be assumed to date between these dates.

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Guiding Future Representations of Hominids

In their report, the international team of researchers from the University of Adelaide (Australia), Arizona State University and Howard University (United States), and the University of Zurich (Switzerland) pointed out some of the flaws in existing facial reconstructions of ancient hominids, examining the potential social and ethical implications that these misleading portraits may have.

According to biological anthropologist Rui Diogo from Howard University in Washington, DC, the right depiction matters. He stresses that when museumgoers see the artists' renditions of extinct hominids like Neanderthals, these visitors are unaware of the amount of artistic bias involved in these works, leading them to believe what they see as reality. Furthermore, this perception could affect their views and even reinforce existing prejudices of present-day peoples.

One example is the set of now-extinct hominids in display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The reconstructions in the museum show skin getting lighter as the hominids evolve to become further bipedal - walking on two feet, instead of using arms as support. But Diogo says, "there is zero evidence to say the skin was whiter." This could give the wrong impression that people with lighter skin.

Impressions About Intelligence and Grooming Habits

Additionally, these artist depictions and the corresponding artistic bias could also give mistaken impressions regarding human evolution as well as the behavior and intelligence of the extinct hominids, according to Ryan Campbell, a co-author in the study and a physical anthropologist from the University of Adelaide. 

"It's as if there is a bias toward portraying our ancestors as if they were stupid and didn't have hygiene," Campbell says regarding the common depiction of Neandertals as having matted and dirty hair, in a statement. He notes that adding hair is not "informed speculation," but an imaginary one.

Campbell also notes that presenting these hominids without hair might be more accurate since hair is usually not preserved in fossils. While DNA data recovered in bones could suggest hair colors, it has no way of telling the species' grooming habits.

To curb these misconceptions from artistic bias, researchers compiled a reference database that scientists could use in future reconstruction efforts from fossils. 


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