Working with skulls is nothing new for University of Wollongong facial anthropologist Dr Susan Hayes – but putting a face to an 18,000-year-old ‘‘hobbit’’ skull presents a whole new challenge.
The senior research fellow at the UOW Centre for Archaeological Science will apply a facial approximation technique to recreate a face for the ancient species of hominid discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003.
Dr Hayes will work on the project with UOW colleague Professor Mike Morwood – the co-leader of the team that discovered the one-metre-tall human species Homo floresiensis dubbed the hobbit after the small creatures in J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
‘‘I won’t be working on the actual skull – which remains in Indonesia – but I’ll be working with a very accurate replica of it,’’ Dr Hayes said.
‘‘The project presents a bit of a challenge for me as it’s not like any skull I’ve worked on. I’ve worked on around 100 skulls during my career but they have all been Homo sapiens.
‘‘So I’ll be applying what I know about anatomically modern humans to an archaic hominid to see how she looks. I believe this is the first time that has been done.’’
The hobbit has been given a few different faces since its discovery - including a couple of very masculine depictions before it was ascertained that ‘‘he’’ was a ‘‘she’’.
‘‘The first representation was a bloke with a spear and tackle,’’ Dr Hayes said. ‘‘Then archaeologists came across the pelvis which revealed that it was more likely to be a female.
‘‘All the representations have been slightly different and I’m interested in doing what I do and comparing the results with what’s out there.’’
Dr Hayes has no clear picture of what ‘‘her’’ hobbit will look like as yet, although the bone structure gives her some clues. ‘‘She’s very small obviously and she has very unusual orbital bones [in the eye cavity] which are a different shape to Homo sapiens, plus she’s got quite a prominent brow ridge,’’ she said.
Dr Hayes, who moved to the UOW in February, is well regarded in her field. In 2010 she recreated the face of a woman who lived in New Zealand’s South Island more than 600 years ago, and last year she helped police build an image of a woman whose remains were found in the Belanglo State Forest in August 2010.
The initial work on the hobbit will be painstaking – and certainly not like any of the quick and fancy techniques used by forensic scientists on television shows like CSI. The face should be completed by November.
‘‘There’s a lot of measurements and checking and spreadsheets – even photographing the skull can take all day as they need to be orthogonal photos so there’s no camera distortion,’’ Dr Hayes said.
The images and measurements will be entered into a computer graphics program in order to build up a virtual anatomy of the hobbit including the facial muscles and glands – with the measurements indicating eye form and mouth shape.