Can I See You?

Anatomically modern human, dated to ~21,000 BCE. Found in Italy.

Two human fossils were found in Italy at the start of the 20th century. The fossils were the subject of some rather dubious claims regarding race and human evolution, fueled by the results of facial reconstruction work done by the scientists involved. Presumably to repair some damage from the topsoil above, one of the skulls was given extensive re-construction and modification of the jaw. This was the skull of a young man whose wisdom teeth had not grown in yet. The wisdom teeth were drilled out of the skull and the jaw was then artificially extended to accommodate the extra teeth. The resulting protruding teeth were then declared as matching “negroid” features, a fact used by some to further their own horrifically racist agendas.

Mammoth ivory carving, dated to ~23,000 BCE. 3.65 cm high. Found in a cave near Brassempouy, France.

This statuette is the earliest known carving of a realistic human face. This figure is sometimes called the “Venus of Brassempouy”, or “Woman with the Hood”, though many have noted it could also be a depiction of hair or a wig.

Scholar Randal White noted in his essay The Women of Brassempouy:
“The figurines emerged from the ground into a colonial intellectual and socio-political context nearly obsessed with matters of race.”

Speculations about the race of the figure (and the race of the carver) began shortly after the figure’s discovery in 1892. The racial interpretations of the find varied depending on where the object was viewed. White Americans were against the idea that their human ancestors could be seen as black, and interpreted the figure as white. Meanwhile, white Europeans were keen to see Africa’s people as a less evolved ancestor to their own “superior” race, and therefore interpreted the figure as black.

White writes: “It probably served French colonial purposes to see African peoples as evolutionary holdovers, as much as it served American interests to see Africans as a non-ancestral side branch leading to a manifest destiny of extinction.”

The co-option of human fossil finds towards racist agendas continues to this day. When developing each of the Ancestors images, I would do a quick Google image search to find pictures to use as drawing reference. Each page of search results was a minefield, full of white supremacist blogs and forums, each regurgitating the rhetoric of 20th century paleoanthropologists to justify their biases, mostly against black and middle eastern people.

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