Malapa skull reconstruction
Photographs by John Gurche
Malapa Fossils
The Moment  John Gurche

Feat of Clay Reconstructing ancient species begins with taking modern ones apart for paleoartist John Gurche. He crafted the Australopithecus sediba shown below and—with digitally added hair—on the opening page of the Malapa fossils feature story. “Over the years I’ve dissected apes as well as humans, taking some 300 measurements each time.” Then he uses the measurements in his work. “For example, the ratio of eyeball to eye-socket size compares in chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and humans. Scaling to the body size of the creature, you know how big some other soft-tissue features should be.” Getting the figure’s expression right is harder. “I find myself staring at people,” Gurche says. “My wife has told me, ‘Stop anatomizing me!’” —Margaret G. Zackowitz

The Process

I start with bare bones. It took 60 days for me to get Sediba up to final clay. I work from the deep to the superficial, basically doing a dissection in reverse. I’ve worked on this methodology for 25 years. It involves as much science as art.

Skull reconstruction

Day 1 The skull is modeled from a high-resolution 3-D scan from the original A. sediba skull.

Skull reconstruction

Day 15 Acrylic eyeballs are added. Markings on the bone guide sculpting of chewing muscles.

Skull reconstruction

Day 40 Sediba likely used his mouth in food preparation. His mouth probably had strong musculature.

Skull reconstruction

Day 53 Most of the clay is now applied. Adding soft tissue makes a big difference in expression.