How to reconstruct the face of an extinct human ancestor

Computer modeler brings Paranthropus boisei to life

Parathrapus boisei

3-D designer Cícero Moraes reconstructed the visage  of a distant human relative named Parathrapus boisei.

3-D: C. Moraes; Skull photo: Moacir Elias Santos

View the slideshow

Cícero Moraes is adding new portraits to the human family album. The 3-D designer based in Sinop, Brazil, has digitally reconstructed the faces of over 15 extinct hominid species, including Paranthropus boisei, a distant cousin to modern humans. The faces are on display at the University of Padua in Italy (see “The expressive face of human history on display.”)

The odd anatomy of P. boisei, which lived in East Africa some 2.3 million to 1.2 million years ago, has long perplexed scientists. Anthropologists once thought the hominid used its colossal molars and heavy jaw to crack open nuts. Yet recent chemical analyses indicate it grazed on grass (SN: 6/4/11, p. 8).

Moraes began his reconstruction with some photos of a skull. After creating a 3-D digital scan of the bones, Moraes approximated the facial musculature using CT scans of chimpanzees as a reference. From there, he used software to manually sculpt the hominid’s facial features. Finally, he added hair and other cosmetic touches. Bringing P. boisei to life took about five days.

Flip through the slideshow below to see the different stages in Moraes’ process.

Designer Cícero Moraes used photos of a skull to reconstruct the face of Paranthropus boisei, a distant cousin of modern humans. C. Moraes
Moraes created 3-D scans of the bones. C. Moraes
CT scans of chimpanzees helped Moraes estimate the facial musculature of P. boisei. C. Moraes
Using software, Moraes sculpted the facial features of the extinct hominid. C. Moraes
Moraes completed the final shape of P. boisei’s face.
To complete to portrait, he added hair.C. Moraes

Erin Wayman is the managing editor for print and longform content at Science News. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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