How Paleoartists Create Prehistory

Remember the Neanderthals you see in the museum or on the glossy pages of The National Geographic? Those are the works of paleoartists, a rare breed of people that create the fanciful visuals to accompany the dry data of paleontology.

Meet two such paleoartists, the twin brothers Alfons and Adrie Kennis of the Netherlands:

Do they consider themselves artists? "Noooo. We are no artists," says one or the other — to be honest, they sound identical on tape. Are they rich? "Nooooo," they laugh in unison. "Look," says either Alfons or Adrie, pointing at one of their reconstructions, "We used the hair of a Scottish Highlander." The hair is russet-colored and has been implanted in the head of a silicon-faced Neanderthal. What kind of Scottish men donate their hair to the paleoartistry industry? "A cow, a cow," scream the Kennises: The hair comes from Highland cattle.

The Kennises have caused some ripples in the museum world. Paleoartists are as susceptible as any of us to their own imaginations. "Artists, even scientific professors, can romanticize the past like everyone else," says Alfons. Hence, what you'll see depicted as an early example of Homo erectus, in museums, in books, or on television, is often wildly inaccurate, as influenced by fantasy or fashion as anything in a glossy magazine. You'll see prehistoric humans depicted with gleaming white teeth or smooth pale skin. "People have fantasies about what it's like to live most of your life in the outdoors," says Alfons. "It is a hard life." The Kennises don't do smooth. They don't do expressionless either. If the bones show that a prehistoric human incurred an injury to his jaw that would give him a tooth infection, this is what the Kennises will imply in the face of their reconstruction.

Link (Photo: Alice Roberts/Evolution: The Human Story)

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