Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

A face from Jericho

It's fascinating to consider what our distant forebears actually looked like.

Realistic paintings are a relatively recent innovation.  The marble statues at the height of classical Greek and Roman civilization were amazingly detailed, in some cases showing almost photographic realism; but it bears keeping in mind that since the people being depicted were often the rich and powerful, portraying them as they actually looked might not have been in the sculptor's best interest if the subject wasn't very attractive.  Any art historians in the audience could comment with far greater authority on the topic, but suffice it to say that in picturing what a great many historical figures looked like, we have little to go on.

Recent advances in reconstruction of faces from skulls has given us some idea of the appearance of our (very) distant ancestors; most notably, the stunning work of my friend John Gurche in creating lifelike models of early hominins has appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, and museums around the world.  This kind of work not only requires incredible artistic ability, but a deep understanding of how the morphology of the human skull, and the arrangement of layers of muscle on top of it, creates the contours of the face -- i.e., a comprehensive understanding of human anatomy.

The reason all this comes up is an article link sent to me by a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia about the reconstruction of a face from a skull found in the ancient city of Jericho.  The site of Jericho -- now part of the West Bank -- has been inhabited for a very long time.  The first certain settlement there was eleven thousand years ago, and it's been occupied pretty much continuously ever since.  (If you're curious, the famous biblical Battle of Jericho, in which Joshua of the Israelites allegedly had his men blow trumpets and thereby flattened the walls of Jericho, almost certainly never happened, and that's not even counting the whole magical music thing; the city had already been seriously damaged during a well-documented invasion from Egypt in the fifteenth century B.C.E., and there's no archaeological evidence whatsoever of a later destruction by the Israelites.  The whole Joshua story, said archaeologist and Old Testament scholar William Dever, was "invented out of whole cloth" to bolster the Israelites' "God is on our side" narrative.)

Be that as it may, the city of Jericho does have a very long history, and has laid claim to being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.  So it was with a great deal of interest that I read the article sent by my friend, which describes the reconstruction of a nine-thousand-year-old skull from Jericho -- and gives us an idea of how its owner might have appeared.

Without further ado, here's what this inhabitant of Jericho, circa 7000 B.C.E., may have looked like:

[Image courtesy of Cicero Moraes, Thiago Beaini and Moacir Santos, and the British Museum]

"With the data we have, which [is] basically structural, we have a good idea of ​​what … this living person’s face would look like," said Cicero Moraes, who led the research.  "But details like the shape of the hair, the color of the hair and eyes are very difficult to do precisely."

Still, the reconstruction brings to life the face of someone who has been dead for ninety centuries, and that's a remarkable achievement.  Even if some of the details aren't quite right, it's closer than anything we've had before.  Looking at his expression makes me wonder who he was, what he was like, how he lived, how he died -- and it connects me to this ancient man who lived in another time and place.  Even if we never find out anything more about him, it links us all across the ages to our shared humanity, and that, I think, is wonderful.


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