Are science and art strange bedfellows? The answer to this tricky question will hinge on your definition of art. Science and illustration certainly are not. American palaeoartist John Gurche has spent three decades studying ape and human anatomy and making reconstructions of early humans. Amidst all this professional work, he has been quietly building a private portfolio of more artistic images as a creative outlet. After 27 years, this body of work is gathered here in Lost Anatomies. It is an exceptional and beautiful collection of palaeoart that occasionally ventures into slightly psychedelic territory, without ever losing sight of the underlying science.
If the name Gurche is not immediately familiar, then his artwork certainly is. His images and sculptures have been on display in the American Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum, and the Smithsonian. His artwork has featured in National Geographic, including on four covers, and it has graced four US Postal Service stamps. To top it off, he has been a consultant for the movie Jurassic Park. Looking at his website, I recognised dinosaur illustrations that were pinned to my bedroom wall as a child.
His previous book, Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins, was a platform to discuss all the debates, brainstorming, and interpretations that went into the fifteen sculptures of early humans he made for the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Origins, which opened in 2010. You will not find much discussion of that kind in Lost Anatomies, nor does the book go into how to make palaeoartwork (for that, see my review of The Palaeoartist’s Handbook: Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art). Instead, this book lets the art do the talking.
Organised roughly chronologically, the four sections of this book are each introduced by short essays from a different contributor (more on them below). But the bulk of the book is dedicated to the jaw-dropping drawings of Gurche. These range from full-body images reminiscent of studio portraits to studies of individual anatomical details such as skulls, or the musculature of arms, feet, and faces. There are some truly memorable images in this book – I was particularly taken with the mid-stride reconstruction of the Australopithecus afarensis skeleton nicknamed Lucy, which provides a unique perspective. The many portraits of early hominins are especially powerful as they look at the reader across the vast chasm of time.
“There are some truly memorable images in this book […] the mid-stride reconstruction of Lucy providing a unique perspective”
For these drawings, Gurche has predominantly worked with pen and ink, graphite, and sometimes chalk and acrylic. The resulting body of work is fairly earthy and dark in tone. Beyond his choice of subjects and sometimes unusual perspective, what adds to the artistry of his work are the media he works on: coloured paper, boards washed or splattered with acrylics, or xeroxed transfers. Other illustrations show a progression of design stages, have written notes overlain, or have been further digitally manipulated or coloured. Gurche has let his creative juices flow for these drawings, with sometimes almost psychedelic results. Some still lifes of skulls look like gigantic hovering spaceships.
Gurche approached five scientists for contributions. Maeve Leakey, of the famous Leakey family who do anthropological fieldwork in Kenya, provides the foreword. Paleoanthropologist David R. Begun has written the first essay on the oldest hominins. He is best known for his outspoken ideas that the oldest human ancestors developed in Europe before invading Africa, from whence they came out of Africa millions of years later (see The Real Planet of the Apes: A New Story of Human Origins). Director of anatomical sciences at the University of Missouri School of Medicine Carol Ward writes about what makes the Australopiths significant, as they were the first ancestors to really shift to a bipedal lifestyle.
Probably the most amusing essay comes from Rick Potts, curator of the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian for which Gurche made the models. He shortly discusses the early members of the genus Homo, and marvels at the diminutive H. floresiensis (nicknamed the Hobbit), asking: “How did this one get to join our taxonomic club?” Finally, anthropologist Trenton W. Holliday talks about the more recent Homo members such as H. neanderthalensis and H. heidelbergensis.
“Contributor Rick Potts […] marvels at the diminutive H. floresiensis, asking: “How did this one get to join our taxonomic club?””
The essays are fairly short, some of them reflecting on the author’s link to Gurche’s work, while others are more personal reflections on fieldwork. Not intended as exhaustive overviews of the state of the science, they nevertheless give the lay of the land, acknowledging for example findings from ancient DNA about interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans (see Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, and my reviews of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past and Ancestors in Our Genome: The New Science of Human Evolution).
Ultimately, Gurche’s extraordinary artwork is the main draw of this book. I found myself absorbed and amazed at the details, the level of realism, and the sheer atmosphere with which many of these drawings are imbued. Each new page made me want to get up and share it with whoever was in the room (“just look at this, this is amazing!”) This material is worthy of an art gallery. To circle back to the question with which I opened this review, and with which Gurche opens the introduction to his book: are science and art strange bedfellows? I think not. If you enjoyed Katrina Van Grouw’s work in The Unfeathered Bird or Unnatural Selection (it’s the same size, incidentally), or if you are interested in human evolution or anthropology, you will most certainly want this book.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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