The World’s Oldest Woman Doesn’t Look Like You’ve Been Told

Candida Moss
·7 min read
Dave Einsel/Getty
Dave Einsel/Getty

Almost fifty years ago, on a Sunday morning in late November 1974, a team of archaeologists in Ethiopia unearthed a three-million-year-old skeleton of an ancient early human. The remains would turn out to be one of the most important fossils ever discovered. That night Donald Johanson, the paleoanthropologist who discovered the fossilized remains, played a cassette tape of the Beatles and as the group listened to the sound of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” reverberate through the campsite a colleague suggested that he name the female hominin Lucy. She represented a new species—Australopithecus afarensis—and a visit to almost any major natural history museum in the world will give you the opportunity to see an artist’s rendition of how she appeared in her own time.

Visit more than one natural history museum or flip through a handful of scientific textbooks, however, and you’ll quickly notice how much disagreement there is about Lucy’s physical appearance. No one can agree on what Lucy or “AL 288-1” looked like. Why is that? In a new article on “Visual Depictions of Our Evolutionary Past,” published this week in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, a team of scientists from the University of Adelaide, Arizona State, the University of Zurich, and Howard University set out to discover why this is and to compile their own, scientifically grounded, reconstruction.

The differences in the depictions of Lucy are not small and, as the authors of the study show, reflect ideological biases about the past. For example, the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which is run by Answers in Genesis, depicts Lucy as a knuckle dragging ape. This is despite the fact that, as Adam Benton has discussed, there is a broad consensus among scientists is that Lucy was a biped who walked on two feet. As the authors of the new study write, “the decision to reconstruct this specimen as a knuckle-walker is an obvious error” but it has significance for whether we see Lucy as important evidence about our ancestors or “just an ape.”

Even in less extreme cases, there are considerable differences in the way that artistic reconstructions show Lucy’s ribcage, facial features, hair, and skin tone. As Karen Anderson has written in an important work, the problem is widespread in hominin reconstructions, which “often convey inaccurate scientific information.” Maciej Henneberg, one of the co-authors of the study, explained to The Daily Beast that depicting a hominin’s body and face involves the reconstruction both of hard tissues (bones and teeth) and of soft tissues (muscles, skin, guts, internal organs, etc). Along the way, numerous decisions have to be made and these decisions, Henneberg told me, substantially affect how people relate to the reconstructed specimen (be it Lucy or another example). Facial features are especially important in this process, Henneberg said, because “Humans communicate by looking at each other’s faces, so we pay a lot of attention to faces of others. Thus, the reconstruction of the face of an animal or a human ancestor gives important personal information - the ‘first impression’ of the reconstructed individual. Incorrectly performed reconstruction may change public opinion about the reconstructed fossil specimen, for example reconstructing the face of a sophisticated human like the Neanderthal (who used jewelry, cared for injured people, cooked food) using ape-like muscles and skin, makes him into a brute.”

“To make matters worse,” the authors argue, “most hominin reconstructions…[are] presented without any rigorous empirical justifications.” Even when those involved in reconstruction describe how they based their reconstructions of facial features and body proportions “this research has never been formally verified nor published in any scientific literature.” Ryan Campbell, the lead author on the study said via email, that the variability in how museums and textbooks depict ancient hominins “has occurred as a result of a lack of effort from the scientific community to hold soft tissue reconstructions to the same level of scrutiny as peer-reviewed scientific research. Most reconstruction methods are unreliable or are not used in favor of artistic interpretation.” A museum visitor might think that they are seeing a rigorous piece of scientific reconstruction but often artistic sensibilities take center stage.

An additional problem with depictions of our biological ancestors is the way that they tend to present evolution as a kind of inevitable linear progression towards a particular Eurocentric goal. Rudolph Zallinger’s famous March of Progress illustration, which was commissioned by Time-Life books in 1965, is a case in point. Not only does the series of images present the erroneous idea of linear progress that eliminates variety, the progression “from animal to ape, to ape-man to the so-called “Negroid race” and then to the “Caucasoid race”” is wildly Eurocentric and racist. The same problems, Campbell and his team write, are implicit in more recent treatments. They argue that John Gurche’s reconstructions at the Smithsonian present a similar “linear progression” from one genus to the next that ends with a photo of Gurche himself, a man of European ancestry. “Consider,” the authors ask “how young, would-be academics of minority groups feel as they are readily encountered by not just unscientifically substantiated material, but material that echoes a history of racist attitudes toward groups that look like them. One could understand how visual material of this sort can discourage interest in science.”

In their own reconstruction, undertaken over 6 years as a collaboration between the scientists and Cuban-American artist Gabriel Vinas, clearly explains the group’s decision making process. Vinas explained to The Daily Beast “For the image showing Lucy and Taung, we produced it to highlight how different choices in surface treatment, color, and hair quantity can differ immensely based on the whims of practitioners or their expert consultants which can result in the kinds of inconsistencies we see all over the world regarding these features.”

Rather than relying upon “intuitive” methods of reconstruction, which the team found “too imprecise” they inferred muscle proportions from previous studies. They are transparent about the gaps in our knowledge. As Vinas told me: “Lucy’s cranial bones are almost entirely missing … ‘putting a face’ quite literally to the celebrity-status skeleton can seem like a minor form of procedural trespassing; in a way, ‘a white lie’ that parents are comfortable telling their children.” In Vinas and the team’s facial reconstructions Lucy is reconstructed with bonobo-like features while the reconstructed Taung child (another well-known set of remains) is shown with skin tone “more similar to that of anatomically modern humans native to South Africa.” The rationale for the difference in skin tone, we are told, is that scientists do not have “an empirical method for reliably reconstructing” the melanin concentration in austalopithecines. Some scientists may disagree with details of these reconstructions, but at least they (and we) know why these choices were made. Vinas added, “to remain intellectually consistent, we must say that none of these models or images in this publication should be touted as representative of the actual appearances of those individuals regardless of how technically impressive they are.”

The larger problem of bias, Diogo Rui of Howard University told me, is not unique to facial reconstruction. “Human evolution is plagued by the use of both art, and scientist biases, and societal prejudices. They can relate to sex, or to gender differences, or to racist ideas.” The depiction of “cave men” with sticks, for examples comes from baseless Hobbesian views about the brutishness of the past. Images of the invention of fire, stone tools, of cave painting, Rui added, only depict men as involved in these innovations. The assumption, he told me, is that women were “passive players.” Such educational reconstructions “are hugely important,” he said because “they are the most direct, efficient tool to perpetuate enculturation, and thus systemic misogyny and racism.” Rui and his co-authors acknowledge the important role played by museums in generating excitement about scientific work and the role of artists in producing images of the past. They note, however, that “unless there are clear plaques and context giving aids revealing that the body and its proportions are speculative” images have the potential to mislead the public.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!

Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.