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What did our ancestors look like?

Skulls from the Natural History Museum's Britain: One Million Years in the Making exhibition

Skulls from the Natural History Museum's Britain: One Million Years in the Making exhibition

© Natural History Museum

    • Nowadays there are pictures of us everywhere: on our walls, on our phones, and all over the internet. People in the future will have no problem finding out what we looked like. When we want to find out what our ancestors looked like, however, we have to do a bit more work because sometimes all we have is a skull.

      In this video you can see Alfons and Adrie Kennis, two artists from Holland making models of early man for an exhibition at the Natural History Museum called Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story. In the video, they say “the scientists bring the knowledge, we make the characters; we give the public something to see”.


      It begins with bones. Everything begins with bones, because they can reveal a lot of information. Normally these bones aren’t allowed to leave the museum, however, they can be scanned. Muscles and skin are then added on top which can be done on a computer. This bit is usually done by someone who works in forensic science so the reconstruction is as accurate as it can possibly be.

      Once the scientists know what the face looks like, then they can send it to the artists who can bring it to life.

      In the film, Alfons and Adrie use moulds to build their prehistoric people but there are other ways of doing it. When archaeologists discovered the remains of Richard III in a car park in Leicester, they used a process called stereolithography - which is how 3D printers work - to make a reconstruction of his face. To find out more about the work done on Richard III you can go to the University of Leicester’s website.

      The Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth has also done lots of work on revealing the faces of her crew, who died when the ship sank in 1545. They can show you their bones and an artist’s impression of what they might have looked like as well as models. They’ve even given the ship’s dog, Hatch, the same treatment.
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