The men who give life to the long-dead


Dutch artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis make stunningly lifelike models of ancient peoples. We describe how the painstaking work is done.


Alfons Kennis removes the mould from the Neanderthal model. – Kennis & Kennis

The National History Museum exhibition, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, features the stunningly lifelike models of an ancient Briton and a Neanderthal. It took Dutch artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis most of 2013 to make them. First they digitally scanned the original skeletons, 3-D printed them into precise plastic replicas and then painstakingly moulded layer after layer of silicone rubber “flesh” onto these “bones”. Finally they sewed in the hair a strand at a time.

Both models are sharp-eyed and attentive to their surroundings – their lives depended on being super-tuned to the environment, after all. They are weather-beaten and appear to have experienced a lot of hard knocks.

“We wanted to emphasise the humanity of these ancient people,” says Chris Stringer, the exhibition’s lead scientist. “In particular, we wanted to show that Neanderthals were real people and not just grunting brutes. The one we have displayed here is actually quite small though he has wide hips and a fair amount of muscle. But he has real individuality and personality.”

The figures give dramatic depth to our perception of these long-dead people and reveal the transformation that modern technology has recently brought to our understanding of Neanderthals.

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Robin McKie is science and technology editor for the Observer newspaper in London.