Several years ago, a team of scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, set out to put a human face to ancient hominid species that once walked the Earth. Using sophisticated forensic methods, they created 27 model heads based on bone fragments, teeth and skulls found across the globe over the last century. The meticulously sculpted heads are the anthropological products of years of excavation in Africa, Asia, and Europe.
In the last 8 million years, at least a dozen human-like species have lived on Earth. As part of the Safari zum Urmenschen exhibition (“Safari of Early Humans”), the facial reconstructions take us on a journey through time, going back seven million years to the species sahelanthropus tchadensis, and culminating with modern-day Homo sapiens. Each face tells its own story about the lives of hominids in their respective era, including where they lived, what they ate, and their likely cause of death.
The exhibition drew much controversy when it was first launched, mainly due to scholarly debates that have raged for decades regarding the classification of these ancient species. Fossils are extremely challenging to categorise as one species or another. Only a few thousand fossils of pre-human species have ever been discovered and entire sub-species are sometimes known only from a single jaw or fragmentary skull. Furthermore, like modern-day humans, no two hominids were alike and it is difficult to determine whether variations in skull features represent distinct species or variations within the same species. For example, the recent discovery of a skull in Dmansi in Turkey suggested that a number of contemporary species of early “Homo” – Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster, and Homo erectus – are actually just variations of one species.
by simon schofield