Bringing hominin fossils back to life: interview with paleoartist John Bavaro

Art and science. Paleoart is the scientific reconstruction of extinct life. Complementing the study of the fossil record, paleoart has become a major contribution of deep scientific knowledge combined with the author’s artistic insight. It was a great pleasure for me to meet John Bavaro, who has great knowledge and passion in the Human Evolution field. I hope you will enjoy this interview with John for Nutcracker Man, including several examples of his very up-to-date work…

Can you describe the process to reconstruct the appearance of hominins? In particular, how do you combine the fossil evidence together with other sources to provide them movement and life?

Paleoart John Bavaro. Turkana Boy

Paleoart by John Bavaro. Figure 1. Turkana Boy

I try to apply my own understanding to the anatomy to the model before I look at other artists so then I have a fresh perspective. But my niche is in digital art which I teach at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

I look at Kennis Brothers, John Gurche, Elisabeth Daynès, Viktor Deak, giants in the field who do reconstructions and I’m in awe.

We are a visual species. And I for one want to explore the possibilities. Perhaps that’s what sets us apart. Art follows science and vice versa. For instance, the Lucy skeleton or the Turkana boy skeleton totally “rewrote” history. In the case of Lucy we now know that she was hybrid tree climber AND a walker. In the case of Turkana Boy there’s clues about gait and the posture etc.  It’s a puzzle that constantly revealing itself. So art follows science in the tendency for equivocation and I’m not being insulting to science when I say that. In fact, every discovery that comes out now days “rewrites” the understanding of the “mythical textbooks”.  Now with the internet we’re getting more impatient. I for one, think that’s lazy clickbait. A teaser, hubristic or both If I read something that says that “new discovery which changes the way we look at things” I say, “Yeah, until the next time which is probably at this pace, a month away.” I know that science is continuingly changing, which is counter to the current understanding (in popular culture) of it which that it is static. Those in the field know about this, but modern society holds it up as basically like religion. “Well, Science says…….” But scientists know that it is ever-changing process. In this era, changes happen at dizzying pace that I can’t keep up with them quickly enough.  It’s like same way that T-Rex was pictured just 50 or 60 years ago with the tail down instead of up.

 

Your work is very up to date with all recent finds in human evolution. Let’s discuss three examples: Jebel Irhoud, Homo naledi and Denisovans.

Jebel Irhoud

You have created an illustration of the human from Jebel Irhoud, dated to 300 Ka and recently proposed as the earliest Homo sapiens known so far. However this has been contested because of the primitive traits of this specimens which are different from other skulls like Omo or Herto dated to 200 Ka. To what extend did you consider the Jebel Irhoud as ‘modern’ in your illustration?

Paleoart John Bavaro. Jebel Irhoud

Paleoart by John Bavaro. Figures 2, 3, 4, 5. Jebel Irhoud

First of all it was compiled from a composite skull. So the people at Max Planck had their own biases as is always the case about composite guesswork of skulls. But the evidence of the Levallois toolmaking technique (as opposed to Mousterian) is intriguing meaning that it someone was teaching it over 300 thousand years ago.  The tools are the thing that they noticed  which was “human”.

From this National Geographic article:

     The author of the study, Jean-Jacques Hublin calls the find “early modern humans” which John Hawks calls belonging to the Homo sapiens clade. “a step too far, I think,” he says. “They redefine the concept of Homo sapiens by creating this category of ‘early modern humans’ that I’ve never seen before.” (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/06/morocco-early-human-fossils-anthropology-science/)  

For my part I tried to be faithful to what I know how about firstly the human face but also the controversy how about whether or not it was homo sapiens or whether that matters. As an illustrator I try to be accurate to what I’m given but I also try to the start with an empty slate and not bring my biases into it. I guessed on the hair and the skin tones but now with DNA evidence they know a lot about whether it was dark or light skinned but as far I know they haven’t sequenced the DNA of the Jebel Irhoud 300 Ka skull. Just since I published it, new research from evidence taken from Hohlenstein-Stadel fossil that hypothesizes that humans did come out of Africa earlier. Which doesn’t prove that they came out of Africa and back. But what if they had? Has as far as Omo or Herto dated to 200 Ka the same question applies. What in the DNA of Archaic Homo sapiens. How far can we consider where the timeline begins. And does it matter anyway? I think personally where we are discovering that there is no human “Adam and Eve” moment but more likely continuum of consciousness.  But the Jebel Irhoud dated to 300 Ka has more of the “ancient features” then both the Omo and Herto skulls.  But that’s debatable too. Maybe the highbrow was a feature of region I’m just playing devil’s advocate here. I haven’t done representations of Omo or Herto humans but I have seen other artist’s representations.

Homo naledi

You have worked on providing naledi the illustration of a full body, based on the large fossil assemblage that allow to define all the cranial and poscranial elements. What were the particular challenges that you had to develop the illustration of this small, surprising human species, which mixes primitive and modern features?

Paleoart John Bavaro. Homo naledi

Paleoart by John Bavaro. Figures 6, 7, 8, 9. Homo naledi

In that case of Homo naledi. As an artist and as a human I always wonder about anthropogenesis-as a philosophical concept, when did someone become “human” which leads to my point about the “moment” the continuum of consciousness. I’m assuming that they not could breed with Homo sapiens. (Who knows though)! But let’s say that they couldn’t. Then this goes back to what does it mean to be human. Of course this opens up a can of worms. Those who are in this field of paleoanthropology see the problem as being a moot point philosophically and anthropologically (I do too), but an artist I really wonder about it from a purely physical perspective. Physically, when did the nose or the hair become human-like? I suspect it’s like anything else because it is gradual. Of course there’s evidence about body lice versus head lice, there’s also cues for the development, the skeleton and the skull i.e. nasal bones, for instance, chimps have a protruding mandible, flat nasal bone, smaller mastoid process, etc. But does a species like Homo naledi have body hair? If so how much? What about the face? I personally I prefer the simian-like version due to the evidence that it’s partially “hung out” in trees, and to the best of my knowledge, didn’t run like Homo erectus.  But the face is human-like so who knows?

Paleoart John Bavaro. Homo naledi

Paleoart by John Bavaro. Fig. 10, 11, 12, 13, 14. Homo naledi

This is where artists have a role. But a case like Homo naledi is more than intriguing because it, existed at the same time as “modern” humans (at least an early version of them). Did it mimic the humans by disposing of the dead. Was it “intelligent”. Like Lee Berger and John Hawks have speculated. Does it call in to question the existent tool record? I said before it’s a moot point-about the look of it but personally I’m dying to know what it looked like.

Denisovan

You have dared to make an illustration of a Denisovan! This particularly interests me, since we know almost nothing about their morphology but three molars and one finger phalanx. What were the sources that inspired your work here?

Paleoart John Bavaro. Denisovan

Paleoart by John Bavaro. Figures 15, 16, 16. Denisovan

In the case the Denisovans, it’s pure “educated speculation”. I have two views of the Denisovans- to be honest they both represent “bridges”-one being between Homo neandertal, Homo denisova and Homo sapiens and other a bridge between Denisovans and Homo sapiens.

 

From an article in Science Daily:      

      Denisovan genetic fragments was found to be larger than neanderthal fragments with Melanesians populations that has significant Denisovan genetic ancestry, representing between 1.9% and 3.4% of their genome. Denisovan genes can potentially be linked to a more-subtle sense of smell in Papua New Guineans and high-altitude adaptions in Tibetans. (www.sciencedaily.com). 

What’s the link “two cultures”? The Denisova Cave in Siberia, was inhabited by modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans. We know that they have dark skin and eyes but not much about them. The reasoning for my portrayal including the body paint was based on day modern-day Papuans’.  Fig. 17.  And like I said before there’s a large continuum of mixtures present that we are learning about every day, Fig. 15 like the discovery in Lingjing, China by archaeologist Zhan-Yang Li of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing, which points to “partial” view what Homo denisova skull “possibly” looks like.  I took skull cap and the brow from the composite model (again which is open for interpretation), which has no mandible. Here’s the “dialogue about my process”. Basically I’m “sculpting” a bridge between three species. Homo neandertal, Homo denisova and Homo sapiens which were co-existent at the same time. I added a Homo neandertal chin and to the skull cap and brow. Again that my interpretation.

 

Thanks for giving me chance to answer these tough questions. I’m sure others can add something to this dialogue.  You can see my work at humanevolution.info  or my personal network at johnbavaro.com

Un pensamiento en “Bringing hominin fossils back to life: interview with paleoartist John Bavaro

  1. Pingback: 10 homininos: miradas, gestos y paleoarte – Nutcracker Man

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