Reconstructions of human ancestors are displayed in museums and textbooks with very little evidence to support their accuracy and have been largely unchallenged by the scientific community, a new study from the University of Adelaide, Arizona State University, and Howard University has found.
For the broader public, as well as for many scholars, the use of such reconstructions has been considered an effective translator of scientific knowledge.
In their publication in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution (10.3389/fevo.2021.639048), the authors reviewed the evidence and methods used to build such reconstructions, from the early nineteenth century to modern-day forensic and computer-based methods.
As well as finding reconstructions were displayed with little empirical evidence to support them, by attempting to produce their own reconstructions of our ancestors the authors found most methods of reconstruction were irreplicable.
Lead author Ryan M. Campbell, a PhD student at the University of Adelaide, said this was the cause for the enormous discrepancies identified between reconstructions of the same individual displayed in various media.
“I first became interested in reconstructing hominids after I saw the Lucy exhibit at the ‘Answers in Genesis’ ministry’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky,’’ he said.
“Upon comparing this reconstruction of Lucy with her many other reconstructions around the world, I was shocked to find that they all looked very different. I expected to find consistency in those reconstructions displayed in natural history museums but the differences, even there, were so severe that I almost thought all previous practitioners had never encountered a single hominid reconstruction before commencing their own.”
Co-author Gabriel Vinas, an MFA candidate at Arizona State University, is the artist who handles the sculptural phase in the lab. He stated the following:
“It seems that the general public, and in many cases the scientific community, are readily taken in by the apparent realism of a reconstruction without questioning its validity,’’
“We have assumed the validity of a process before questioning artists as to how they validate the reliability of their methods, the applicability of their data, or even how they produce and publish data at all. Our work shows that methods for achieving scientifically justified reconstructions are still not quite in our grasp. Be that as it may, I prefer to continue to work in the service of developing new reliable methods rather than perpetuating erroneous, albeit culturally accepted, reconstructions based on unscientific methods and biased misconceptions”, he added.
The study also reviewed the broader societal implications of presenting visual depictions of hominids that are not based on strong scientific foundations. "Many of the previous reconstructions were influenced by imaginary stories about what is ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ versus what is ‘civilised’ and ‘modern’, which are in turn linked to racist and misogynistic ideas and tribal concepts about ‘us vs them’", explained Rui Diogo, co-author from Howard University.
Maciej Henneberg, the co-author from Adelaide University, summarized, "Casting specific views in stone of a complete reconstruction does not reflect the debate, just one of many interpretations. The end result is that a particular reconstruction of a specific fossil may present it as a quadrupedal creature in one museum, while another reconstruction of the same fossil in a different museum portrays it as an erect bipedal person. Taking the average – a three-legged individual – is not an option.”
Mr. Campbell states that: “Improved reconstruction methods hold promise for the prediction of hominin soft tissues, as well as for disseminating current scientific understandings of human evolution in the future". In conclusion, it is the authors' position that doing more thorough scientific reconstruction studies that are chiefly based on the available empirical data instead of a priori biases and assumptions is something that is absolutely needed in order to have a proper understanding of our lineage and, ultimately, a better grasp on what it means to be human.