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Here’s How You Reconstruct a 1.9-Million-Year-Old Face

Paleoartist John Gurche stokes imagination by bringing our ancestors to life

Homo naledi

, a previously-unknown species of hominin whose discovery was announced today in

the journal eLife

, is

already challenging our understanding of our own evolution

. And while the discovery of 1,550 specimens makes

h. naledi

already one of the most documented human ancestors, a skeleton can only stoke the public's imagination so far.

John Gurche, a paleoartist known for his work as a consultant for 1993's Jurassic Park, contributes to popular understanding of extinct species by conceptualizing what they looked like before ages of decomposition. In a new video released by National Geographic to coincide with the h. naledi announcement, Gurche recounts his process of bringing our newly discovered ancestor to life.

Gurche starts with a thorough knowledge of facial dissections of humans as well as various apes. Through this comparative anatomy, he's able to see how specific measurements on the skull offer clues to the face's soft tissue.

Ears, according to Gurche, are a "boondoggle," since very little of the ear remains. This isn't true with noses, however. H. naledi, for instance, had a spine protruding from the base of the nostrils, which Gurche says points to a protruding nose—more human than ape-like.

When colouring the face, Gurche is informed by current indigenous populations. Although the age of the bones discovered isn't clear, some think they might belong to a South African group that lived roughly 1.9 million years ago. In the case of h. naledi, Gurche based skin tone on South Africa's San people.

In the video, Gurche compares his work to the facial reconstruction work done at crime scenes, only instead of looking for a smoking gun, his work educates—bringing us a little closer to our ancestors, and arguably expanding our understanding of ourselves.