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.

depicting our ancestral face
Jürgen Willbarth
depicting our ancestral face
Helmut Schmidt

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,

John WylieChimp morphs into hominin