The daily beast
The oldest woman in the world doesn’t look like you were told
Dave Einsel / Getty Almost fifty years ago, a team of archeologists in Ethiopia discovered a three-million-year-old skeleton of an ancient early human on a Sunday morning in late November 1974. The remains would turn out to be one of the most important fossils ever discovered. That night, Donald Johanson, the paleoanthropologist who discovered the fossilized remains, played a Beatles tape, and when the group heard the sound of “Lucy in Heaven with Diamonds,” a colleague suggested they name the female homin Lucy. She represented a new species – Australopithecus afarensis – and a visit to almost every major natural history museum in the world gives you the chance to see an artist portrayed as she performed in her own time. Visit More Than One Natural History Museum or Flip Through a handful of science textbooks, however, you will quickly discover just how much disagreement there is about Lucy’s physical appearance. Nobody can agree on what Lucy or “AL 288-1” looked like. Why is that? In a new article on “Visual Representations of Our Evolutionary Past,” published this week in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, a team of scientists from the University of Adelaide, Arizona, the University of Zurich, and Howard University set out to find out why this is and to put together your own science-based reconstruction. The differences in the representations of Lucy are not small and, as the authors of the study show, reflect ideological prejudices about the past. For example, the Creation Museum in Kentucky, operated by Answers in Genesis, shows Lucy as an ankle-pulling monkey. This is despite the fact that, as Adam Benton has discussed, there is broad consensus among scientists that Lucy was a two-legged woman who walked on two legs. As the authors of the new study write, “the decision to reconstruct this specimen as an ankle walker is an obvious mistake,” but it matters whether we view Lucy as important evidence of our ancestors or as “just a monkey” in less extreme ones In cases, there are significant differences in the way artistic reconstructions show Lucy’s rib cage, facial features, hair, and skin tone. As Karen Anderson wrote in an important work, the problem is widespread with hominin reconstructions, which “often convey inaccurate scientific information.” Maciej Henneberg, a co-author of the study, told The Daily Beast that depicting a hominin’s body and face is the reconstruction of both hard tissue (bones and teeth) and soft tissue (muscles, skin, intestines, internal organs) includes, etc). Numerous decisions have to be made along the way, and those decisions, Henneberg said, will have a significant impact on how people interact with the reconstructed specimen (be it Lucy or some other example). Facial features are particularly important in this process, said Henneberg, because “People communicate by looking at each other’s faces, so we pay a lot of attention to other people’s faces. The reconstruction of the face of an animal or a human ancestor thus provides important personal information – the “first impression” of the reconstructed individual. An incorrectly performed reconstruction can change public opinion about the reconstructed fossil specimen. Reconstructing the face of a highly developed human like the Neanderthal (who used jewelry, cared for the injured, cooked food) with ape-like muscles and skin makes him a brutal. “To make matters worse,” argue the authors, “most hominin reconstructions …[are] submitted without strict empirical justification. “Even if those involved in the reconstruction describe how they based their reconstructions of facial features and body proportions,” this research has not been formally verified or published in any scientific literature. “Ryan Campbell, the study’s lead author, said via email, that the variability in the display of ancient hominins in museums and textbooks “is due to the fact that science has made no effort to maintain soft tissue reconstruction on par with peer-reviewed scientific research. Most reconstruction methods are unreliable or not used for the benefit of artistic interpretation. “A museum visitor might think they are seeing a rigorous scientific reconstruction, but artistic sensibilities are often the focus. Another problem with portraying our biological ancestors is the way they portray evolution as some sort of inevitable linear progression towards a particular Eurocentric goal. An example of this is Rudolph Zallinger’s famous March of Progress illustration, commissioned by Time-Life books in 1965. The series of images shows not only the erroneous idea of linear progress that eliminates diversity, but also progress “from animal to monkey, from ape-man to the so-called” Negroid race “and then to the” Caucasus race “” Eurocentric and racist. The same problems, write Campbell and his team, are associated with newer treatments. They argue that John Gurche’s reconstructions in the Smithsonian show a similar “linear progression” from one genre to the next, ending with a photo of Gurche himself, a man of European descent. “Think about it,” the authors ask, “how young aspiring academics from minority groups feel when they come across not only unscientific material, but also material that reflects a history of racist attitudes towards groups that look like them.” One could understand how visual material of this nature can discourage interest in science. “In their own reconstruction, which was carried out over 6 years in collaboration between the scientists and the Cuban-American artist Gabriel Vinas, the decision-making process of the group is clearly explained. Vinas told The Daily Beast, “We created the picture showing Lucy and Taung to highlight how varied the choices in terms of surface treatment, color and amount of hair can be based on the whims of the practitioner or their expert advisor that can lead to the result types of inconsistencies that we see around the world regarding these characteristics. “Rather than relying on“ intuitive ”reconstruction methods, which the team found“ too imprecise, ”they deduced muscle proportions from previous studies. They are transparent about the gaps in our knowledge. As Vinas told me, “Lucy’s skull bones are almost completely missing … It can seem like a minor form of procedural violation to literally put a face to the celebrity skeleton. In a way, a “white lie” that parents like to tell their children. “In Vinas and the team’s facial reconstructions, Lucy is reconstructed with bonobo-like features, while the reconstructed Taung child (another well-known set of remains) is shown with a skin tone that is” more like anatomically modern humans in South Africa. ” The reason for the difference in skin tone is that scientists do not have an “empirical method to reliably reconstruct” the concentration of melanin in Austalopithecins. Some scientists may not agree with the details of these reconstructions, but at least they (and we) know why these decisions were made. Vinas added, “To be intellectually consistent, we have to say that none of these models or images in this publication should be touted as representative of the actual appearance of these people, regardless of how technically impressive they are.” The bigger problem of bias, Diogo Rui of Howard University told me, isn’t just for facial reconstruction. “Human evolution is plagued by the use of art, the prejudices of scientists, and social prejudices. They can relate to gender, gender differences, or racist ideas. “The depiction of“ cavemen ”with sticks comes, for example, from unfounded Hobbesian views of the brutality of the past. Rui added that images of the invention of fire, stone tools, and cave painting only show men involved in these innovations. The assumption, he told me, is that women were “passive players”. Such educational reconstructions “are enormously important,” he said, because “they are the most direct and most efficient instrument for maintaining enculturation and thus systemic misogyny and racism.” Rui and his co-authors recognize the important role museums play in generating enthusiasm for scholarly work and the role of artists in producing images of the past. However, they state that “unless there are clear plaques and contextual tools to suggest that the body and its proportions are speculative,” images can mislead the public. Read more at The Daily Beast Tag. Sign up now! Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside delves deeper into the stories that matter to you. Learn more.