Why has our perception of the appearance of early hominids changed in recent decades? As it is impossible to know with any real precision the facial appearance and other bodily features of early human relatives, it is not surprising that there is a subjective element in restorations, especially facial restorations. The result is a very wide range of 3D models and images, sometimes contradicting each other.
At the extreme ends of the spectrum are restorations of the same species that are irreconcilable, at least visually.However, I have noticed that there does seem to be a general trend in such restorations. In the early days, at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, restorations tended to be decidedly primitive and ape-like. Java man, Heidleberg man and Neanderthal man were generally depicted as being very crude and ape-like and were conceived of (at least popularly) as behaving in a primitive animal-like manner. This seems to have gradually changed over the past 50 years or so with early hominids becoming represented as more and more human-like in appearance and behaviour.
Remains of Homo Heidelbergensis found at the British Palaeolithic site at Boxgrove, for example, (c550,000 BCE) have been restored to show a tall chap with a certain raffish charm and no trace of the ape at all. Neanderthal man, too, has undergone something of a humanising process (perhaps helped by the discovery that most of us have up to 4% Neanderthal DNA). Cave and Strauss, writing in the Quarterly Review of Biology observed that if he were given a bath, collar and tie, he would pass unnoticed in the New York subway.In a few cases, modern restorations depart quite significantly from the known anatomical facts. For example, the restoration of ‘lucy’, Australopithecus afarensis, in the British Natural History Museum, shows Lucy in an upright human posture, with human-like hands and feet, even though Stern and Susman (1983) who described the type specimen, described Lucy’s hands and feet as being long and curved, and typical of those of a tree-dwelling ape.
Now it’s as plain as day that those responsible for research into early hominids have gradually changed their perceptions of the appearance of our ancestors, and that these subjective changes have found their way into museum publications, paintings and restorations. But why exactly? What scientific evidence has been found, or what paradigm shift has occurred, that would account for this change?
The only new information that I can think of that might contribute to this changing perception is our better knowledge and understanding of lithic technology. When Java man was restored as ape-like, stone tools were widely regarded as crude artefacts, and evidence both of low intellect and lack of development. We now know that making, for example, Solutrean blades, Clovis points or microlith arrows required not only a very high level of manual dexterity but also considerable forethought and pre-planning.
I wonder if anyone can suggest other reasons for this change in viewpoint?
Visit The Museum of The Stone Age – http://www.stoneagetools.co.uk