A touch of France: New life for old bones: giving a face to Lucy, King Tut, and an 18th-century shipwrecked scientist

New life for old bones
Giving a face to Lucy, King Tut, and
an 18th-century shipwrecked scientist
by É. Daynès ,France

In her studio situated in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris, Élisabeth Daynès breathes life into bones thousands, even millions, of years old as she sculpts reconstructions of Australopithecus, Paranthropus, and Neanderthals. Where art and science meet, this paleoartist practices an unusual profession: forensic facial reconstruction. In collaboration with anatomists, anthropologists, archeologists, and prehistorians, she uses techniques drawn from medical imaging and the latest methods in criminology. Early pioneers of such work were the 19th-century Swiss anatomist Wilhelm His, who reconstructed the face of Johann-Sebastian Bach from a skull exhumed at the Johanniskirche (St John’s Church) in Leipzig, and the Russian Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov, the first anatomist to reconstruct a face in a criminal case, in 1935. There is an increasing demand frommuseums fromall over the world to show visitors realistic reconstructions of our hominid ancestors and ofmodern humans from the more recent past. Through months of work and constant dialogue with researchers in various fields, Élisabeth Daynès painstakingly recreates through anthropological sculpture the face and figure of a longgone, but not forgotten, forebear. And each ancient face that peers from the past helps her challenge our preconceptions and way of seeing our ancestors.

Medicographia. 2010;32:436-443 (see French abstract on page 443)

Select group of humankind’s ancestors: all related, but actually hundreds of thousands of years apart.

© 2007 Photographer P.Plailly/E.Daynès/Eurelios/Lookatsciences – Reconstitution Elisabeth Daynès Paris

Pensive in the half-light, plump-cheeked and rubicund, the child is the cynosure of the exhibition room. “How cute! He’s lovely. And so lifelike.” A single glance at the reconstruction of the three-year-old Neanderthal is enough to dispel any lingering thoughts museumgoers may have that his people, those “also-rans” of human evolution, were brutish halfwits on the wrong (the losing) side of humanity.

Beyond feelings of tenderness towards this child from the past, besides an empathy that overcomes latent speciesism, what is expressed here is the promise of another way of seeing these people who are no longer with us (except, it would seem, among our genes: it has recently been claimed that up to 1% to 4% of the present-day Eurasian genome comes from Neanderthal DNA). And it is this new vision of our ancestors that I strive to transmit through my sculptures, where art and science meet.

In my studio in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris, I have for twenty years been recreating australopithecines like the famous Lucy, as well as Homo habilis, Homo georgicus from Dmanisi (Georgia) Homo erectus, and more recent examples of Homo sapiens, like Tutankhamen and Albert Einstein. My clients are museums in France and elsewhere seeking to offer visitors a glimpse into the world of some of our forefathers.

Endearing chubby Neanderthal child
(Gibraltar, Devil’s Tower).

© 2008 Photo S.Plailly/Lookatsciences –
Reconstitution Elisabeth Daynès Paris

A consuming passion

Looking back there was nothing hinting that one day I would, so to speak, bring back to life our great family of ancestors. After courses in painting and sculpture, at the age of 21 I started to create makeup and masks for the theater and cinema. As fate would have it, in 1988 I received a commission from the Thot Museum at Montignac (near the famous Lascaux caves) to recreate a campsite with a few Magdalenians (the first people to produce cave art). And a mammoth, which was a big challenge: 4.5 meters high at the withers! But in the end it wasn’t this prehistoric pachyderm that fascinated me, rather it was the fossil skulls that the museum’s sci- entists showed me. My enthusiasm was immediate. I knew little of prehistory, but there and then started delving into anthropology and anatomy: I scoured scientific publications, attended major congresses, met the world’s most renowned anthropologists and anatomists. I needed to convince anthropology departments around the world of the rigor and seriousness of my plans, so as to solicit their help and support.

It was far from easy, but I persisted and won them over, and for the last 15 years recognition by the scientific community has enabled me to work with exceptional fossils, the essential basis of my work, access to which would otherwise have been impossible. Moreover, without relations of trust that I have forged with the researchers, without the dialogue and permanent exchanges I have set in place with them, I would never be able to take up the scientific and artistic challenge of facial reconstruction. For recreating from skull fragments the facial shapes and traits of a human being is a long and delicate operation based notably onmethods developed for use in forensic medicine.

A little history

These methods go back to the work of the French anatomist Paul Broca (1824-1880) who was the first to consider the human face scientifically and to show the relations between bone structures and soft parts. He rigorously described the different proportions of the skulls and faces of several ethnic groups. His results are still valid and confirmed in the anthropology laboratory every day, as anthropologists realize that the skulls of each species have particular features, such as those of the facial bones, that distinguish them from the skulls of other species. For the form of the skull shapes the face: we may all have two eyes, a nose, lips, and a chin, but it is their interrelations and relative proportions that make faces different.

Dr Jean-Noël Vignal, Forensic Anthropologist,
discussing skull features with Élisabeth Daynès.

© 2008 Photo S.Plailly/Lookatsciences – Reconstitution
Elisabeth Daynès Paris

From this principle stems the technique of facial reconstruction, which uses bone fragments to recreate the face they once formed. The soft tissues (fat, muscles, skin), between the skull and the face, define facial contours and topography. The German anatomist Hermann Welcker measured soft tissue thicknesses in 1883, using nine median points in 30 male cadavers. Twelve years later, the Swiss anatomist Wilhelm His examined 28 cadavers using a needle introduced at nine median points and six lateral points. The distance between the surface of the skin and the surface of the bone was calculated by measuring the space separating the point of the needle froma rubber washer pressed against the skin.Wilhelm His was an innovator and used his results to recreate the face of Johann-Sebastian Bach from a skull found during renovation work at the Johanniskirche (St John’s Church) in Leipzig. Many names are associated with the development of facial reconstruction—Kollmann and Buchly, Merkel, Czekanowski, Henri-Martin—but it was unquestionably Mikhail Gerasimov in the Soviet Union who pioneered forensic sculpture. Anthropologist, archeologist, ethnologist, Gerasimov experimented with forensic facial reconstruction using skulls, and in 1935 used his skills in the first facial reconstruction in a criminal case, to enable witnesses to recognize the victim. In 1950, the Soviet Union set up a Laboratory for Plastic Reconstruction where Gerasimov continued his work, recreating, for example, the faces of Ivan the Terrible and the German poet Friedrich Schiller. As he later wrote in his autobiography, The Face Finder, Gerasimov was fascinated by the opportunity to “gaze upon the faces of the long departed.”

Reconstruction stages, Homo sapiens.

© 2005 Photographer P.Plailly/E.Daynès/Eurelios/Lookatsciences – Reconstitution Elisabeth Daynès Paris

From the early 1980s, the Americans J. S. Rhine, H. R. Campbell, and C. E. Moore revisited Gerasimov’s work and established tables of soft tissue thicknesses as a function of sex, ethnic group, and build. These values are often still used by some research teams, even if newmedical imaging techniques are now able to visualize the inside of the body and distinguish soft tissues from bone.


Whether the commission is for a reconstruction of a Neanderthal boy, a young Australopithecus girl, or a Cro-Magnon man, the first step is to make a cast of a skull. This presupposes that the original is complete, or almost, or at least that the researchers have been able to reconstruct the missing parts (often the jawbone) using similar skulls, for the more complete the cast, the more accurate the reconstruction. The proportions and shape of the cast enable me to reconstruct the most logical likeness closest to the original. In my studio I make two copies of the skull. One serves as a support for the sculpture and I keep the other constantly in view so as to stick closely to the bone structures. The same method is then always applied. Using the skull, a veritable identity map of the subject must be drawn by observing the principles used in a criminal investigation. For this I have collaborated since 1996 with Dr Jean-Noël Vignal, forensic anthropologist and paleopathologist, the erstwhile director of the Department of Anthropology of the Institut de Recherche Criminelle de la Gendarmerie Nationale (Police Forensic Research Institute) at Rosny-sous-Bois. He uses the latest technologies to uncover a skull’s secrets. To someone who knows how to examine it, a skull speaks volumes. Its shape, for instance, can be used to determine which hominid family it belongs to, but also to estimate age at the time of death, sex (especially if other— postcranial [= all save the skull]—bones are available, notably the pelvis), diseases, deficiencies, and diet. Armed with this information, Jean-Noël Vignal can calculate the values of 18 craniometric points (soft tissue thicknesses) and generate the curve of the forehead, the slope of the chin, and precious indications for the reconstruction of the nose.

Cromanoid-type head in the course of reconstruction.

© 2003 Photographer P.Plailly/E.Daynès/Eurelios/Lookatsciences – Reconstitution Elisabeth Daynès Paris

The method is spectacularly reliable for Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals. Older skulls pose greater problems: no anatomist has ever examined the cadaver of a Paranthropus or an Australopithecus, and the farther back in time we go the greater the role of informed guesswork, whence the importance of working directly on the bony structures.

It’s all in the look

Once these calculations are materialized using short sticks pushed into the cast to indicate the range of soft tissue thicknesses, I use clay to model the muscle masses for the whole skull. Far from being an artist’s mannerism, this step is essential to visualize the relative proportions of the face and check its self-consistency. It is at this point that I see the face beginning to emerge: the lacrimal punctum gives the position of the eye, the opening of the corner of the mouth, between the first and second premolar, indicates the width of the smile, eye orbits with downturned or upturned ends will determine whether the look is sad or happy. The shape of the nasal spine, when there is one, indicates whether the nose was straight, hooked, or upturned. The width of the nasal fossa provides an estimate of the width of the nose, and so forth. I then add the thickness of the skin and that of the subcutaneous fat. Here too interpretation plays a part: it is impossible know for certain whether a subject was plump or lean, had full or hollow cheeks. I stay close to the bone structures without adding too much fat, but the amount of muscle mass will depend on the indications gleaned from the skull and the postcranials.

Still to be defined are the wrinkles, the grain of the skin, and the last absolutely crucial touch: the eyes. For when completely covered by soft parts, the skull reveals a face that is lifeless, soulless. To breathe life into the reconstruction, I seek to invest it with character, personality, an air of goodness, a spark of intelligence, a moment of fear—an emotion however fleeting must animate the eyes and look. I spend hours working and refining the effect until I find the right expres- sion. When I was reconstructing Paranthropus, an African hominid (2.6 to 1.3 million years ago), Yoël Rak, Professor of Anatomy at the Tel-Aviv Faculty of Medicine, author of a thesis on Paranthropus, told me many times: “Think that he wasn’t carnivorous, wasn’t aggressive.” That marked me. I gave the Paranthropus a soft look, to the point that when he was finished people passing through the studio could not stop themselves from caressing his head.

Elisabeth Daynès at work on Paranthropus boisei (2.5 million years BP) based on a cast of cranium OH5, Olduvai, Tanzania.

© 2006 Photographer P.Plailly/E.Daynès/Eurelios/Lookatsciences – Reconstitution E.Daynès Paris

Female Homo georgicus (1.7 million years BP) based on cast of cranium D2282 discovered at Dmanisi in Georgia.

© 1999 Photographer P.Plailly/E.Daynès/Eurelios/Lookatsciences – Reconstitution E.Daynès Paris

Some projects are an even greater challenge. The Science Museum in Barcelona asked me to represent a Neanderthal helping one of his fellows who is dying after a hunting accident. How could I show the wounded Neanderthal’s fear of dying, his friend’s compassion? In the end I found the answer in a photo in an old issue of LIFE magazine, showing a dying American soldier, staring into space, in the arms of a comrade who is looking at him with pain and powerlessness.

“Ecce Homo”

Now it remains to give a body to this head from the distant past. Here too collaboration with scientists is essential to acquire all the data on the postcranial bones (length of long bones, shape of the pelvis and rib cage, muscle insertions…).

For as we delve ever deeper into the past, we move further away from the anatomy of our contemporaries, and the data are scarcer, uncertain, debatable. There are, for instance, numerous hypotheses on the locomotion of our distant ancestors. To reconstruct the gait and postures of Australopithecines, I spent whole days in the Anvers Zoo observing bonobos, great apes that are our closest extant relatives (along with the common chimpanzee). I drew much inspiration from their powerful musculature. This work is important because I am not seeking to erect a static statue or to produce an archetype, but to give my sculpture movement, an attitude evocative of its environment by using all known scientific data, always with the aim of transmitting an emotion through a poignant vision of the march of humanity.

Homo floresiensis, 18 000 years BP, based on a cast of cranium LB1, discovered on Flores Island, Indonesia.

© 2009 Photo S.Plailly/Lookatsciences – Reconstitution Elisabeth Daynès Paris

Left: Neanderthal, 50 000 BP, La Chapelle-aux-Saints, Corrèze, France.
Right: Homo sapiens, 14 000 BP, Chancelade, Dordogne, France.

© 2008 Photo S.Plailly/Lookatsciences – Reconstitution Elisabeth Daynès Paris

When the clay model is finished, I make a mold for the final silicone model, ie, the sculpture on which I make the finishing touches: tinting the skin, inserting the ocular and dental prostheses, adding liver spots and so forth, before using a needle to insert one by one thousands of (human or yak) hairs. Whereas the face’s shape and proportions are strictly objective (being related to the underlying bone structures), the colors of the eyes, skin, and hair are subjective. Yetmy choices are not random, but rather the fruit of a long process of immersion in the universe in which themen and women I recreate lived, taking into account their culture, way of life, eating habits, the climate they lived in, and so on. For example, if the fauna associated with the bones is African, we can deduce that the climate was hot, which suggests a dark skin and dark eyes. Sometimes even, for certain hominids from very long ago, like Homo ergaster, Homo habilis, and Australopithecus, published studies suggest that the sclera of the eye could be very dark. For Neanderthals, on the other hand, certain studies of fossil DNA suggest that they had reddish hair and pale eyes.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882), as reconstructed by Élisabeth Daynès.

© 2009 Photo S.Plailly/Lookatsciences – Reconstitution Elisabeth Daynès Paris

My greatest pleasure then is to see the surprise and emotion of the researchers with whom I have worked as they contemplate the final result. They are face to face with an ancestor recreated using the latest scientific findings, an ancestor they thought they knew and who had peopled their most secret dreams. And suddenly, in the studio in Belleville, their dream takes shape.

A plea for our ancestors

My main aim is to give the museums or institutions that exhibit my sculptures a teaching tool that will encourage visitors to think about our origins through a face-to-face encounter with a representative of a prehistoric population. I hope in some small way to enhance understanding of the physical appearance of these prehistoric men and women from our past and to rehabilitate them, banishing forever an all-too-common perception of them as brutish and dull-witted. Through my work, I hope to change such attitudes and to help people recognize the extraordinary achievements of our hominid ancestors over millions of years. _

Abduction? Elisabeth Daynès transporting a nearly completed Homo georgicus (1.7 million years BP).

© 2002 Photographer P.Plailly/E.Daynès/Eurelios/Lookatsciences – Reconstitution Elisabeth Daynès Paris