The world just found out that humans have another ancient cousin.
While Dr. Lee Berger, an American paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, is being credited with the discovery, a midwesterner now living in New York is responsible for showing the world what the being, called Homo naledi, probably looked like.
John Gurche, arguably America’s most prominent fossil renderer, said he has been honing his craft almost since birth.
Growing up in Kansas, Gurche was surrounded by one of North America’s richest fossil beds; his obsession with dinosaurs and early mammal bones was instant—and so was recreating them.
“When you’re a kid, you do art about it, you’re making sculptures, things like that,” he said. “I just never quit.”
Decades later, Gurche has now become the go-to artist for major paleolithic discoveries. His work has been featured on the covers of National Geographic, Discover, and Natural History, as well as in numerous documentaries, museums, and even U.S. postage stamps.
So when Berger said he had found what he believed to be an entirely new hominid species, he immediately called Gurche, who said he was given unlimited access to the new, nearly complete skeletal remains in order to fill out the 70-page checklist he has created over the years to guide his mockups.
Ten months later, what would become the public’s lasting impression of Naledi was born.
For Gurche, three distinctive features of the species stood out.
First, the nose. Naledi has a nasal spine that projects outward, Gurche said; while it’s flattish by modern human standards, it is not as flat as an ape’s, and there’s plenty of cartilage.
“So I just went nuts after I found such a strong and useful clue.”
Next was the skull shape. Gurche said Naledi has prominent chewing or temporalis muscles, and in fact purposely made him slightly balding in order for those to stand out (as you may have read, he used bear fur for hair because apes and early hominids had fur that is tapered at the ends).
Finally and most importantly, brain size. While Naledi’s hands and feet are instantly recognizable as human, he was mostly limited in his capabilities due to having a brain only slightly larger than a modern ape’s. Naledi’s was also quite contorted, with a splayed pelvis, a conical rib cage, high shoulders, and a trunk Gurche simply describes as “weird.”
There was one exception to Naledi’s limitations: Berger said evidence indicates Naledi appears to have practiced ritualized burial.
So Gurche decided there was one expression he wanted to capture: skepticism.
“He’s got his mouth in a frown, and brow is that way, and it’s just, it’s more of a human expression than an ape expression,” he said. “I wanted him to be [staring] in a human way to emphasize that although he is small in brain, he is one of us, he’s in our genus. I wanted to be able to relate to it as a living being, so I gave him expression almost skeptical.”
By way of comparison, past Gurche renderings have featured expressions of “wistfulness,” like this Neanderthal…
…Whom Gurche describes as, “[A] cognitive, complex being with emotions and subtle levels of symbolic thinking…someone with an inner life.” He points out Neanderthals were likely the first hominids to have symbolic body ornamentation.
Then there was the Paranthropus boisei — a member of the Australopithecus genus — who could chew almost anything, and thus was given a look of “bovine contentment.”
But what exactly is Naledi skeptical about? Gurche prefers to leave that up to the viewer.
“It’s a puzzle you have to figure out your own answer to.”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.