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Shaping Humanity

Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Shaping Humanity
    Book Description:

    What did earlier humans really look like? What was life like for them, millions of years ago? How do we know? In this book, internationally renowned paleoartist John Gurche describes the extraordinary process by which he creates forensically accurate and hauntingly realistic representations of our ancient human ancestors.

    Inspired by a lifelong fascination with all things prehistoric, and gifted with a unique artistic vision, Gurche has studied fossil remains, comparative ape and human anatomy, and forensic reconstruction for over three decades. His artworks appear in world-class museums and publications ranging fromNational Geographicto the journalScience,and he is widely known for his contributions to Steven Spielberg'sJurassic Parkand a number of acclaimed television specials. For the Smithsonian Institution's groundbreaking David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, opened in 2010, Gurche created fifteen sculptures representing six million years of human history. InShaping Humanityhe relates how he worked with a team of scientists to depict human evolution in sculpture for the new hall. He reveals the debates and brainstorming that surround these often controversial depictions, and along the way he enriches our awareness of the various paths of human evolution and humanity's stunning uniqueness in the history of life on Earth.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18533-1
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Biological Sciences, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-ix)
  3. [Illustration]
    (pp. x-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvii)
    (pp. 1-5)

    He had not been sick, was not injured in any way. So the sight of him face down in the marsh was a shock to his family. Surely this could not be so. Surely the stillness and seeming lifelessness of his body could not mean the end of his story. In truth it did not, although the future of his story was far beyond his family’s power to imagine.

    Alive! He is well and alive! Not dead, please not dead.

    They call to him. The gentle rocking of his body is his only response. They wade out to him. In...

  7. Chapter 1 BEGINNINGS: Sahelanthropus tchadensis (6 to 7 million years ago)
    (pp. 7-29)

    There is a windy desert in central Africa where blowing sand sometimes reduces visibility to almost nothing. People, if they can be seen at all, appear only as dim shapes at such times. With increasing distance, the shapes become fainter, until at last they disappear entirely. In July 2001, this inhospitable desert yielded a secret. It was a primate skull, about the size of a chimpanzee’s, capped by black manganese-stained sediment like a bizarre mop of hair. It was found in what is now northern Chad by members of a French/Chadian team, among fossils from animal species known from other...

  8. Chapter 2 WALKERS AND CLIMBERS: Australopithecus afarensis (3.6 to 2.9 million years ago)
    (pp. 31-67)

    One morning I awoke to the sounds of primate calls from the trees behind the house where I was staying. I got up and took a cup of coffee out into the yard. I sat on a bench and watched the primates for a while. Then I went inside and made them some pancakes.

    The primates were my children, Blythe, Loren, and Meave, aged eleven, ten, and eight. They spend less than 1 percent of their time in the trees, and they are firmly committed to bipedal walking when on the ground. In their skeletons, they carry signs of their...

  9. Chapter 3 THE IMPOSSIBLE DISCOVERY: Australopithecus africanus (3.3 to 2.1 million years ago)
    (pp. 69-83)

    In 1924, anatomist Raymond Dart of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, found what could not have existed. He discovered a skull with a brain capacity the size of an ape’s, but with humanlike qualities of the teeth and lower jaw. Most of the anthropological establishment responded that this combination was nonsense; we knew that the enlargement of the brain occurred early, at a stage when the jaws and teeth were still apelike. We knew this because this combination existed in the Piltdown skull, found twelve years earlier.

    Fifty-four years after Dr. Dart’s discovery I tracked him...

  10. Chapter 4 THE PARADOXICAL SPECIALIST: Paranthropus boisei (2.3 to 1.0 million years ago)
    (pp. 87-112)

    At this point in the narrative we meet a strange relative. Our first three meetings have been with beings that are candidates for the direct ancestry of humans. This one is more of an evolutionary cousin, on a branch of the human tree that probably did not lead to us but instead vanished from the earth, with no descendants.

    The modern world got its first glimpse of this relative in 1959, when Mary Leakey discovered a scrap of skull and two large teeth, which were mineralized to a beautiful gray-black, sticking out of sediments at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. She...

    (pp. 115-144)

    For nearly the first two-thirds of human history (six to two and a half million years ago), hominins were small-bodied, small-brained bipedal apes with long arms and short legs, and unusual teeth.Australopithecusoccupied the latter part of this period, roughly the middle third of human history. Except for minor adjustments, the body plan ofAustralopithecusand the suite of adaptations it represents seem to have remained stable from its beginning just over four million years ago, for a period of over one and a half million years. As discussed in the preceding chapters, this may have been the result...

  12. Chapter 5 THE TRAVELER: Homo erectus (1.8 to 0.1 million years ago)
    (pp. 147-190)

    Returning to the next hominin species to be represented by a bronze sculpture and silicone head reconstruction in the new Smithsonian hall, we turn our focus toHomo erectus. The recovery of a nearly complete skeleton of an early AfricanHomo erectusby a team led by Alan Walker and the Leakeys in the mid-1980s capped nearly a century of more fragmentary finds ofHomo erectus. This was the beautifully preserved skeleton of a young male found in 1.55-million-year-old sediments at the Kenyan site of Nariokotome. The Nariokotome boy, as he came to be known, was roughly equivalent in age...

  13. Chapter 6 A SYMBOLIC ANIMAL: Homo heidelbergensis (0.7 to 0.2 million years ago)
    (pp. 193-217)

    A 600,000-year-old-skull found at the site of Bodo in Ethiopia bears cut marks made with a stone tool where someone removed the soft tissue of the face. We have no indication of why or what was in the mind of the hominin wielding the stone tool. But this behavior hints that something had changed for members of the human lineage.

    About 300,000 years ago, over thirty human bodies were dropped into a deep hole in a cavern at the Spanish site of Sima de los Huesos (Pit of the Bones). Is it possible that this behavior signals an increased awareness...

  14. Chapter 7 THE OTHER: Homo neanderthalensis (0.25 to 0.027 million years ago)
    (pp. 219-262)

    The first two-thirds of human history is an African story. Hominins that lived during this time were, to various degrees, tropically adapted primates. When human groups expanded beyond Africa, perhaps two million years ago or just after, they encountered more intensely seasonal environments. Earth was at this time experiencing major oscillations in temperature, including cold periods that brought massive ice sheets across formerly temperate areas of Europe, Asia, and North America. Between these times of intense cold were warmer periods. The increased climatic variation brought new challenges for this unusual group of primates. How would they respond?

    Human populations living...

  15. Chapter 8 THE UNLIKELY SURVIVOR: Homo floresiensis (0.095 to 0.017 million years ago)
    (pp. 265-294)

    When Neandertals became extinct 27,000 years ago, we were left alone, the sole hominin species remaining on earth. Or so we thought. In mid-October 2004, I got a very surprising phone call. I had just finished working on a laborious project forNational Geographic:three head reconstructions and a triple-page digital piece for an article on finds from the Georgian site of Dmanisi. I had been working seven days a week, often into the night, and I was ready for a rest. It was a beautiful autumn in Denver (where I was living), and I wanted to take long bike...

  16. Chapter 9 LINKED: Homo sapiens (0.2 million years ago–?)
    (pp. 297-307)

    At dawn, the collection of figures stands mute in the new hall, each a frozen snapshot in time, each representing a species now extinct. Their shapes have returned to the earth after long absences, but any appearance of life in these figures is belied by the material they are made of: an alloy of metal ores from the ground. By what conceivable natural process did these bodies, mimicking life in their shapes, make a reappearance on earth thousands to millions of years after their kind went extinct, in a metal that cannot sustain life?

    Although these individual moments in human...

  17. Chapter 10 ENDINGS
    (pp. 309-318)

    My hand reaches for the knob of my studio door as it has done thousands of times before. I put the key into the lock and am instantly struck by the feeling that I am trespassing, disturbing a quiet place. The words come floating up out of my darkness: “a dead man’s realm.” I have a strong impression that the hand on the doorknob is not my own, but that of someone else, using this same key to enter the now-cobwebbed studio after I am gone. Perhaps my things are still in there, now covered with dust. I close my...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 319-322)
    (pp. 323-326)
    (pp. 327-338)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 339-345)