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Rethinking facial reconstructions with soft tissue

If you have a passing interest in science, it’s likely you’ve seen some reconstructed hominid faces – they give some idea of what our ancestors and companions in the Homo genus might have looked like.

“Reconstructing extinct members of the Hominidae, or hominids, including their facial soft tissue, has become increasingly popular with many approximations of their faces presented in museum exhibitions, popular science publications and at conference presentations worldwide,” says Ryan Campbell, a PhD student at the University of Adelaide.

But as these facial reconstructions usually depend on bones and skulls, questions remain about the soft tissue in hominid faces. Soft tissue thickness varies between individuals, as well as across species.

“It is essential that accurate facial soft tissue thickness measurements are used when reconstructing the faces of hominids to reduce the variability exhibited in reconstructions of the same individuals,” says Campbell.

Many of these reconstructions may rely on inaccurate soft tissue thickness, making the faces appear very different to how they actually may have.

To address this, Campbell led a study that examined facial soft tissue thickness in chimpanzees. The team used this dataset to create a series of regression equations that can be used to reconstruct the soft tissues of extinct hominids.

“We looked at tissue depths in present-day chimpanzees to identify correlations in skin and bone,” says Gabriel Vinas, a Master of Fine Arts student and sculptor at Arizona State University, US, who co-authored a paper describing the research in PLOS One.

“The equations, which resulted directly from this research, are also included and can be implemented in future practitioners’ reconstructions,” says Campbell.

“This research is invaluable for future efforts reconstructing ancient hominids, as well as for comparative studies within and outside the discipline of biological/physical anthropology.”


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