Monthly Archives: April 2014

Pleistocene forensics: Face to Face with Homo antecessor

I just realized that a decade and a half have past since I first attempted to reconstruct the face of Homo antecessor, the early human species described from fossils found in Gran Dolina, Atapuerca, back in the mid 1990s.
The results of that early attempt were shown in the exhibit “Atapuerca, nuestros Antecesores”, which opened at Madrid’s Museo de Ciencias in 1999, and I reccounted the reconstruction process in a special section of the exhibition’s catalogue. But in the years that followed I revisited the reconstruction several times, updating it as new fossils were found or as I incorporated new techniques to my reconstruction “toolbox”. Successive versions were published in books and shown in exhibitions, but the one thing I am certain about is that even the latest versions are provisional. It is only a matter of time that new fossils will be found at Gran Dolina that will lead us to revise the face of Homo antecessor once again.

This “collage” summarizes the state of affairs of the reconstruction of Homo antecessor as it was in 2006. But later updates have been made, and more will surely follow!

Is it possible to show in just 2 minutes of video the process that has led to successive versions of the face of the Dolina hominin over all these years? Well, honestly I doubt it, but I had to try anyway. I have uploaded the resulting video to YouTube, so now you can watch and judge by yourself!
Here is the link:

Let us look at the Olduvai 2 mural, layer by layer…

The scene at olduvai Bed 2 was more complex than the previous ones, with the enormous carcass of an elephant becoming the focus of considerable activity by hominins and other creatures, which have to take turns at the “table”. But we viewers cannot take turns: I have to show everything at the same time, so the scene gets quickly crowded. But hey, I have been here sooo many times before… it is the paleoartist’s daily bread to deal with the need to pack too many contents in one single scene so that all the main scientific findings made at one particular fossil site can be seen by the viewers in a single glance. I cannot say I am comfortable with this kind of packed recreations, but certainly I have got used to them!

The background landscape, as shown in this picture, seems so roomy that you apparently can pack in it all the animal activities written in the script…
2-some trees

But, ah, the process is always painful, and you have to use all your composition tricks (perspective, use of landscape elements to create “sections” in the scene…) so that the final painting does not get completely choked with all that is happening in it!
8-walking hominids-waterm

You can see the layer-by-layer structure of this digital painting in my latest YouTube video:

Happy viewing!!

Dissecting another prehistoric mural: La Roma 2 fossil site

It has been my fate as of late to produce prehistoric murals in record time. One recent example is the reconstruction of the late Miocene environment and fauna from La Roma 2 fossil site in Teruel, commissioned by Spanish Museum “Dinópolis”. The schedule was so tight that it would have been impossible to do it in time, if it weren´t for a fortunate circumstance: this fossil site has been excavated over the last few years by a team of paleontologists who also happen to be my colleagues and friends, and in fact I have been involved in the study of some of the amazing fossils recovered there. As a result, I was quite familiar with the anatomy of most of the mammal species known from the site, which helped make my work so much simpler -and faster.
La Roma 2 has made headlines recently for the discovery of a new species of primitive otter, Teruelictis riparius, and also for the first finding of a pathological individual of the sabertooth cat Promegantereon. It also has yielded a truly spectacular concentration of hyaenid coprolites (hyena poo, to say it plainly), which in turn contain pollen useful for determining the vegetation that existed in the area some 9 million years ago. And it has one of the most amazing concentrations of bones of the three-toed horse Hipparion in Spain, a concentration that allowed scientists to determine that the larger of the two Hipparion species found at the site belonged to a new species, which has been named after the site: Hipparion laromae.

This image shows the background landscape of the La Roma 2 painting.
paisaje La Roma 2 capa 1

Even with my familiarity with the fauna of La Roma, it would have been impossible to complete this assignment in time if it weren’t for the advantages of digital painting. Working in layers makes all modifications and adjustments so much easier. This painting was intended as the background of a large exhibit case with fossils being exhibited in front. Halfway through the process, the exhibit curators told me that I needed to make sure to move any essential elements of the painting away from a large area in the right side foreground, in order to leave room for a skeleton of Hipparion that would be mounted in front of the mural. If something like that happens while you are working on an oil painting, you are tempted to commit suicide -or at least to induce others to commit it. Fortunately, when you have all the essential elements of the painting in separate layers, you are free to shuffle things a little to one side or the other and take them out of the way of harm.

This image shows the La Roma painting with some (not nearly all) of its foreground layers visible. In a previous version, the horse herd invaded the right hand section of the mural, but I had to move them to the left in order to leave room for the mounted skeleton exhibited in front.
paisaje La Roma 2 capa 5

Now I have uploaded a video where you will see the mural virtually “dissected”, showing all the layers as they appear over the bare background landscape:

But if you want to see the mural in all its 6-meter glory, together with a collection of amazing fossils from La Roma 2, you need to pay a visit to Dinópolis in Teruel!

Anatomy of a prehistoric mural: the Olduvai Bed 1 scene

The first of the large environmental paintings that I did for the exhibition “The Cradle of Human Kind” was a reconstruction of the landscape and fauna of Olduvai Bed 1, Tanzania. As in all the paintings I did for this project, the advantages of working in a digital format became evident during the process of review and information exchanges with the exhibit curators, Manuel Domínguez Rodrigo and Enrique Baquedano. For instance, when the painting was well underway I was told that the relative sizes of the distant volcanoes needed to be corrected; then at some point I was asked to put more palm trees in the scene, in order to reflect the data from the fossil site…

Here we see the background landscape of Olduvai Bed 1, without the animals and much of the foreground vegetation.
olduvai bed 1 capa 1

In complex scenes like this I usually end up with a large pile of layers, even though I am constantly trying to combine them to get as few as possible. But this is the only way to preserve the freedom to modify any of the main elements without ruining the work you have done in adjacent areas.

Here is the same Olduvai Bed 1 scene with some of the upper digital layers in place. Some of the animals and foreground vegetation are now visible.
olduvai bed 1 capa 3- animales

You can watch a video showing the whole sequence of layers from background to complete scene, hominid band and all, in YouTube:

The books that accompany this exhibition will soon be available for ordering through “Wild World Visuals”, be sure to check the site regularly: