One bust depicts a gaunt-faced man with a beaked nose and angular chin. Nearby, another has rounded cheeks and a softer nose and chin. But the two faces were both created based on the skull of one man, St. Anthony of Padua.
The gaunt face, a reconstruction made 20 years ago, is closer to how St. Anthony appears in religious artwork. The rounder face was created in late 2013 by a team of archaeologists and 3-D modelers from Italy and Brazil. The group, called Arc-Team, used updated computer modeling techniques and drew on forensic data from organizations such as the FBI about how muscles fit to human skulls.
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The two busts form part of the exhibit “Faces: The Many Visages of Human History” at the University of Padua in Italy. The exhibit showcases how facial reconstruction sharpens anthropologists’ image of humanity’s past. Arc-Team created St. Anthony’s face without knowing whose skull they were working on, says curator Nicola Carrara, a physical anthropologist at the University of Padua. Unlike the creator of the older bust, the Arc-Team modeler “was not conditioned by the icons connected to St. Anthony,” Carrara says.
The exhibit’s reconstructions travel deep into human history. In a long corridor, Arc-Team’s rebuilt faces of human ancestors squint, stare and sneer beside replicas of the skulls they are based on. The corridor’s faces include the famous 3.2-million-year-old apelike hominid Lucy and early Homo sapiens.
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To make the reconstructions, scientists pinpointed the spots where muscles connected to the skull. The researchers also estimated the depth of flesh using small pegs on the skull surface, and combined that information with forensic data from modern skulls to derive the thickness, position and length of the deepest-set muscles in the face. The modelers then used the same methods to place progressively shallower muscles until the outermost muscles gave shape to a human or prehuman face. For the rest — skin tone, hair and eye color — scientists and artists made educated guesses. (For more on the process, see “How to reconstruct the face of an extinct human ancestor.”)
Deriving the shapes of faces of extinct species can be especially tricky because scientists have no examples of fleshy faces to turn to. So the modelers used a new computational technique that had passed the test of approximating one ape’s face (a gorilla’s) from another’s skull (a chimpanzee’s). Arc-Team used the method on four roughly 1.8-million-year-old Homo georgicus skulls, and their strikingly individual faces greet museum visitors.
The exhibit extends beyond facial reconstruction. It showcases tools from anthropology’s history of trying to justify dividing humankind into races. It also offers a glance at the discredited ideas of phrenology. The exhibit is an homage to people’s fascination with faces themselves, even if — like St. Anthony’s visage — our view of those faces changes over time.