Our ability to reconstruct the likenesses of long-dead humans has made immeasurable progress in recent decades. With detailed computer programs, DNA studies, and advanced technologies like 3D printing — the margin of error in scientifically reconstructed faces is shrinking. The result is stunning lifelike portraits of ancient people who left this Earth thousands upon thousands of years ago.
Facial reconstruction is a delicate mix of science and art. As such, the pendulum can swing too much one way and affect the end result. Too much science and faces can be sterile and unmoving. Let artistic license take over, and reconstructions can be scientifically inaccurate.
So how do experts create these reconstructions and what do they expect to find from them?
The Art Of Reconstructed Faces
Scientists and artists often use a 3D-printed skull they gleaned from either fragments of ancient humans or if they’re lucky an entire skull. They then take every detail into consideration; radiocarbon dating, dental plaque, and DNA analysis to determine the color of the subject’s eyes, skin, and hair.
Some digital portraits are done using only a computer. Others are rendered in three dimensions by artists using clay and similar materials alongside this research. These artists use precise measurements and their knowledge of facial muscles to build an accurate model.
Sometimes an exact replica of a skull is used when the original needs to be kept. This involves lots of photos, digital rendering, and 3D printing or casting. Specialized forensic artists use all these same measures on contemporary skulls as well to help identify murder victims.
Hundreds of hours can go into one reconstruction. This begs the question — are they worth doing? In the case of a murder investigation, reconstructions are sometimes last-ditch efforts when there is no DNA, dental records, or photographs. However, when the identity is truly unknown, putting a face on a victim can be the difference between a cold case and a closed one.
But what about ancient people? How does it help us to learn about their physical appearance?
Bringing History — And Ancient People — To Life
Humans are highly visual creatures. Some of us have to see something before we can believe it. In this sense, observing the face of someone that’s been reconstructed from a lump of bone can help us to visualize — and therefore understand — our evolutionary history more clearly.
On top of this, it’s just really, really interesting.
The Future Of Facial Reconstruction
With how far we’ve come already, it’s difficult to imagine many more improvements being implemented in this field. There are a couple of things, however, that can swing the pendulum of facial reconstruction to be closer to the side of hard science.
As with most everything, the more we practice, the more we learn. Facial reconstruction is still a fairly new science. Time itself will reveal new biological markers. Even more advanced software will become available. But for now, the lack of a standardized model creates a variety of results for the same data inputs. Figuring out how to tighten up the process and allow less creative interpretation in certain situations could change everything.
Right now, using reconstructed faces as hard evidence in court cases is not allowed. If we can start replicating faces with even greater accuracy, someday it could be. Whether this is a good or bad thing is certainly up for debate and calls upon the great ethics statement, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.”
But for now, we can create an image into the past and it is helping us to better understand our evolutionary history.
Here are some reconstructed faces of ancient humans: