Recently I sat down with John Gurche, author of the new book Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins (Yale University Press, 2014). Gurche is a paleoartist, known for his work with dinosaurs and early humans. Gurche has worked on the movie Jurassic Park, designed stamps for the US Postal Service, and recently crafted the sculptures for the Smithsonian Museum’s Hall of Human Origins. In Shaping Humanity, Gurche delves into the data, research, creativity, and emotion employed in constructing the Smithsonian exhibit. Gurche works from his studio in Trumansburg, New York, where he is also artist-in-residence at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca.

ZvB: I imagine that a lot of people have never heard the term “paleoartist.” Can you speak a bit about what a paleoartist is?

JG: A paleoartist is an artist who specializes in depicting prehistoric life in sculpture and painting.

ZvB: How did you decide to become a paleoartist?

JG: Well, I grew up in a place where there are lots of fossils, just outside of Kansas City in a suburb. There were fossils everywhere in road cuts and stream beds. And that kind of stuff just fascinated me when I was a kid. In junior high it had been my goal to make a family tree of all life. I had these source books and they each gave a different part of the story, and I wanted to link them up. But the source books that I had were a hilarious combination of my uncle’s old historical geology textbooks that still had Piltdown Man [a hoax skull] in it, and then some other stuff that was really more credible. So that was my goal when I was younger, and then I put it aside. But then in 1969 I went to the drive-in with my girlfriend to see 2001 Space Odyssey. When I saw what was happening on the screen I couldn’t believe my eyes and I completely forgot about having a date there. So I think what really got me about 2001 was that it so eloquently expressed what a vast journey we’ve come on, the human journey. By the end of the movie I knew a couple of things: I knew that I wanted to work as an artist; it was such a visual feast. Some of the things that are part of my aesthetic makeup come from that movie. And I also knew that I wanted to study human origins. When I’d been doing the evolution of all of life, I didn’t give humans a special look really. Dinosaurs were probably more interesting to me up until that point. But at that point it became humans. So here I am, at age 62, doing basically what I set out to do then.

ZvB: At this point, which do you find more fun, working with dinosaurs or humans?

JG: They’re two different things for me. Working in the Mesozoic is like taking a vacation to an exotic place. Fantastic life forms, especially as they discover more, some with a range of exotic-looking visual display features. They’re just fantastic creatures. But that’s a vacation. Human origins is more like home to me, because it’s us. So if I’m curious about what kind of phenomenon in the universe I am, I have to look to human origins to figure that out.

ZvB: In the book Shaping Humanity, readers will right off the bat notice that you have a very intimate writing style. It’s very literary, very beautiful.

JG: That was accidental, as my ex-English teachers can tell you.

ZvB: Why was it important that this book incorporate that kind of writing style, or did it just happen?

JG: It kind of just happened, but it is important in retrospect. At first, I had wanted to publish a different book with Yale University Press. They suggested we do this book first, as they thought it would be more commercial. So I agreed to it. I thought it would be pretty much a nuts and bolts book about how you reconstruct human ancestors and also about how you can use sculpture to tell the human story, as typified by the Smithsonian project featured in the book. But the stuff you refer to reflects the way I really feel about human origins, and that just crept in. I couldn’t keep it out of the writing. Some of these perspectives are the kind of perspectives that working among human ancestors for a really intensive period of time, in this case four years, how that influences your ideas on what we are, and also on placing our short little individual lives and the life of our species within a greater evolutionary context. That total immersion took me there and I’m hoping that some of that will translate for readers.


From Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins by John Gurche

ZvB: The writing is very powerful, like moments when you are explicitly addressing Lucy, asking questions like whether she was afraid living in the trees.

JG: Yeah, I’m curious about all that, because it’s very personal. And they’re all questions that to some degree the fossil record can answer.

ZvB: Do you think that kind of perspective is good for scientists? Should they be opening up the more artistic sides of their brains?

JG: Not necessarily. I mean if they can do it, that’s great. But they’re focused on extracting information in a very detailed way, using a rigorous method, from the fossil record. And if that’s their only role, that’s still very very valuable. If someone can also express the poetry of paleo as well, great. Loren Eiseley did… I think of him as the poet of paleo. He was both a good scientist and a really fantastic writer.

ZvB: In your book you mention that the Smithsonian project was stalled for twenty-three years, which was disappointing but beneficial in the long run. What were some of the most important things that you were able to learn in the interim?

JG: Really the whole thing. When I first looked in the literature, expecting to find at least some helpful things for reconstructing faces, there wasn’t a lot of material and the material that was there, upon testing, often didn’t hold up […] There’s a collection at the Smithsonian of death masks and skulls from the same individual so that you can actually test some of those ideas. If the muscle marking for levator anguli oris is strongly marked, then will the corners of the mouth turn up? It doesn’t actually work. So that kind of thing was my first disappointment. From there I thought, I’m going to try to do a ton of dissection and really work on researching the comparative anatomy of the face, and try to come up with a workable method. So I began doing that, and I was on a great ape dissecting team at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Everyone would work on a different portion of the animal and I would be the one working on the face. I’ve done dissections in many places, but it wasn’t really until about 10 years down the road that I started getting good answers to the questions I had, and started finding things that actually correlate in such a way that you can use bony tissue or fossilized bony tissue to predict soft tissue anatomy. I began finding a lot of that kind of thing, and now I’ve done many years of dissection of humans and every species of great ape, male and female, young and old. I have all this data, distilled down into a 65 page worksheet that I have to go through as I do each head reconstruction. It takes me about two months just to do all the anatomical work on the face, building it up in clay. In the worksheet I have predictive ratios or equations, and maps of muscle fibers—where they’re thick and where they’re thin and all that.


From Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins by John Gurche

ZvB: Did you get formal training to be able to have such a close understanding of anatomy?

JG: I have a masters in Anthropology, and I had done dissections of animals all through my life. Never great apes of course, and never humans, until graduate school. So I knew how to do it pretty well from the beginning.

ZvB: When you dissect an ape compared to dissecting a human, is it a similar feeling? I imagine it must give you a lot of perspective.

JG: You know, when I’m dissecting a human face there’s both the element of wonder there and the element of being sort of creeped out that I’m cutting apart a human face. And that has never gone away. But I don’t have the second element quite so strong when I’m working on an ape. I’m overwhelmed by the wonder of the thing more than anything else. I try to do very detailed dissections so that I’m following individual muscle fibers and separating them from the skin. Really the wonder of it overhwhelms the gross-out factor quite easily.

We humans have a powerful need to understand our beginnings and our relationship to the larger cosmos. Testament to the universal nature of this need is the fact that all human cultures have mythologies that address it. Many of us have times during our lives when the yearning is especially strong to experience a connection with our origins and our links to the rest of nature as fully as possible. For most of human history, religions have addressed this kind of yearning, often aided by art as a conduit for symbolic concepts and religious awe. The origins myths they have supplied are often beautiful, and the associated imagery compelling. Earth’s human cultures have produced thousands of these, many of them mutually exclusive. Today, we have the good fortune to be living at a time when a powerful methodology of testable inquiry is revealing details of the way it actually happened. The origins story revealed so far is fantastic beyond the powers of mere human imagination. It is the story of a small corner of the universe becoming aware.” –excerpt from Shaping Humanity by John Gurche.

Zoe van Buren is a Publications and Collections Assistant at the Paleontological Research Institution. She recently graduated from Vassar College with a bachelors degree in Anthropology, and currently lives in Ithaca, NY.

The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.

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Published On: March 26, 2014

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