I have long thought that efforts to depict the face of our ancestral hominin species have been too ape-like. There is no science on what hominin faces looked like—only the skulls beneath the faces.
Late one night I chanced upon this drawing of Hulmut Schmidt, the former Chancellor of Germany by illustrator, Jügen Willbarth, also German. Struck by its realism I commissioned him to draw what he began calling an “urmensch” (ancient man).
He first drew a composite sketch from a half-dozen pictures of hominin heads that had been fashioned by paleo-sculptors informed by fossil skulls. I call this sketch an “easel” in the letter below, written to him in German, and then proceed to briefly school him about what I had in mind:
Sehr geehrter Herr Willbarth,
Excellent! We now have an easel upon which to work. I would like to see in this face the etched effects of a life of care and concern around the eyes; remember, this is a face no one has ever seen or even conceived of before. The expression around the mouth is too lighthearted. I want a care-worn expression (but not at all depressed or sad) to reflect a life of responsibility. Give the face the lines of character. These were very serious, kind and compassionate people, far more so than we. Vanity and pride did not yet exist.
Please allow me to briefly summarize for you what I have determined about the evolution of the human face. For our ancestral species it was exclusively an instrument of communication. Most animals don’t have a face in the human sense, because it is not in their interest to communicate much of anything but aggression. Apes have the beginnings of a face principally to communicate dominance or submission. The human face became flattened in the front, like an information billboard (which is what we have in your first rendering). Right from the beginning, our ancestral species evolved a communication system (language) in which there was sustained signaling and receiving in order to achieve a running consensus about two burning issues: justice and truth.
The function of the modern human face has diverged, in part, from that of our ancestors. Our faces are also used as an organ of display, like a peacock’s tail. We have evolved a superimposed “layer” reflecting our passion for vanity. That is why modern faces look so childlike—particularly female faces with retained baby fat, and reduced noses and chins in order to resemble cute children.
So the objective here is to excavate out from under our present baby-face the finely chiseled and thoroughly functional dignity that was the countenance of our noble ancestors.
With great respect for your skills,
Although Urmensch lived some million years ago, the experience of his life lies at the heart of your experience of this very moment. You are not only conscious of reading these words, you are conscious of being conscious of reading them. As a modern human, you have been endowed with two minds. These two minds are animated by two completely different kinds of motivation. Your recently evolved Homo sapiens mind is motivated by the pleasure of fulfilling a desire. Perhaps you believe that knowing yourself better will make you happier?
But, trailing along a split-second later, you also experience that first experience with the same mind as Urmensch, and you thereby become aware of your experience of desiring. Having been evolved over many millions of years, the consciousness of this second mind is far more maturely developed than your much younger mind that desires. Unaffected by your childhood experience, your old-mind is virtually identical in all of us. Quite the opposite from the pleasure-oriented goals of your new-mind, your old-mind is motivated by seeking a state of peacefulness, which is determined by your evaluation of just two qualities in these words you are reading: their truth and their righteousness.
Within this old-mind experience, the truth of these particular words would appear to be more relevant than their righteousness—but no human activity is entirely free of moral valuation—and in this case it is based on your assessment of my motivation for writing this. Does your inner Urmensch detect that I desire something from you (like a “like”), or is it your judgement that these words truly bring to me and therefore to you a small measure of peacefulness?
While I can only imagine myself watching the early hominins from afar, I can place myself with Urmensch’s people. Crouching in a circle, we are all glancing back and forth, not merely imitating one another’s work, but rather watching closely for the recognition of strokes made with the authority of how it should be done, and always had been done. We all instinctively know the familiar rectitude of wisdom flashing alternatively among us, making small adjustments with constant mutual recognition until general specifications are satisfied: the precise technique of striking, the proper size and shape, sharpened all around the edges.
The essential unity of these far flung artifacts bears witness to the collective sources of their creation rendered deeply from within the same sacred way of life. There was no planning or knowing outside the moment of being submerged within the midst of their communal movements, one leading right on to the next in a rhythm of stones striking stones that were the sounds and motions all from within thousands of tiny, separate groups all animated by a single, eternal Will. It is meaningless to assert that these people were religious, but it could be said that they lived their lives inside of the mind of a naturally evolved deity.
Whether it be from one day, week, or century on into the next, the memory of what to do and when to do it was not stored in any individual brain. Rather this knowledge was mixed into and around a given group—and all groups—in bits and pieces, which, when the moment arose, fell together in collective animation. Diffusing through time and space and linked by long repeating chains of unbroken mutual experience, this hallowed ritual, the emblem of a sacred tribe, scattered far and wide out into their entire diaspora from throughout Africa out and across the vastness of Eurasia. Although individuals drifted from one group to another and small bands dissolved and new ones reconstituted, these diurnal chains of communal functioning wove an unbroken fabric for fifty thousand generations across the expanse of entire continents.