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Don’t Fall for Facial ‘Reconstructions’

1400 words

Back in April of last year, I wrote an article on the problems with facial ‘reconstructions’ and why, for instance, Mitochondrial Eve probably didn’t look like that. Now, recently, ‘reconstructions’ of Nariokotome boy and Neanderthals. The ‘reconstructors’, of course, have no idea what the soft tissue of said individual looked like, so they must infer and use ‘guesswork’ to show parts of the phenotype when they do these ‘reconstructions’.

My reason for writing this is due to the ‘reconstruction’ of Nefertiti. I have seen altrighers proclaim ‘The Ancient Egyptians were white!’ whereas I saw blacks stating ‘Why are they whitewashing our history!’ Both of these claims are dumb, and they’re also wrong. Then you have articles—purely driven by ideology—that proclaim ‘Facial Reconstruction Reveals Queen Nefertiti Was White!

This article is garbage. It first makes the claim that King Tut’s DNA came back as being similar to 70 percent of Western European man. Though, there are a lot of problems with this claim. 1) the company IGENEA inferred his Y chromosome from a TV special; the data was not available for analysis. 2) Haplogroup does not equal race. This is very simple.

Now that the White race has decisively reclaimed the Ancient Egyptians

The white race has never ‘claimed’ the Ancient Egyptians; this is just like the Arthur Kemp fantasy that the Ancient Egyptians were Nordic and that any and all civilizations throughout history were started and maintained by whites, and that the causes of the falls of these civilizations were due to racial mixing etc etc. These fantasies have no basis in reality, and, now, we will have to deal with people pushing these facial ‘reconstructions’ that are largely just ‘art’, and don’t actually show us what the individual in question used to look like (more on this below).

Stephan (2003) goes through the four primary fallacies of facial reconstruction: fallacy 1) That we can predict soft tissue from the skull, that we can create recognizable faces. This is highly flawed. Soft tissue fossilization is rare—rare enough to be irrelevant, especially when discussing what ancient humans used to look like. So for these purposes, and perhaps this is the most important criticism of ‘reconstructions’, any and all soft tissue features you see on these ‘reconstructions’ are largely guesswork and artistic flair from the ‘reconstructor’. So facial ‘reconstructions’ are mostly art. So, pretty much, the ‘reconstructor’ has to make a ton of leaps and assumptions while creating his sculpture because he does not have the relevant information to make sure it is truly accurate, which is a large blow to facial ‘reconstructions’.

And, perhaps most importantly for people who push ‘reconstructions’ of ancient hominin: “The decomposition of the soft tissue parts of paleoanthropological beings makes it impossible for the detail of their actual soft tissue face morphology and variability to be known, as well as the variability of the relationship between the hard and the soft tissue.” and “Hence any facial “reconstructions” of earlier hominids are likely to be misleading [4].

As an example for the inaccuracy of these ‘reconstructions’, see this image from Wikipedia:


The left is the ‘reconstruction’ while the right is how the woman looked. She had distinct lips which could not be recreated because, again, soft tissue is missing.

2) That faces are ‘reconstructed’ from skulls: This fallacy directly follows from fallacy 1: that ‘reconstructors’ can accurately predict what the former soft tissue looked like. Faces are not ‘reconstructed’ from skulls, it’s largely guesswork. Stephan states that individuals who see and hear about facial ‘reconstructions’ state things like “wow, you have to be pretty smart/knowledgeable to be able to do such a complex task”, which Stephan then states that facial ‘approximation’ may be a better term to use since it doesn’t imply that the face was ‘reconstructed’ from the skull.

3) That this discipline is ‘credible’ because it is ‘partly science’, but Stephan argues that calling it a science is ‘misleading’. But he writes (pg 196): “The fact that several of the commonly used subjective guidelines when scientifically evaluated have been found to be inaccurate, … strongly emphasizes the point that traditional facial approximation methods are not scientific, for if they were scientific and their error known previously surely these methods would have been abandoned or improved upon.

And finally, 4) We know that ‘reconstructions’ work because they have been successful in forensic investigations. Though this is not a strong claim because other factors could influence the discovery, such as media coverage, chance, or ‘contextual information’. So these forensics cases cannot be pointed to when one attempts to argue for the utility of facial ‘reconstructions’. There also seems to be a lot of publication bias in this literature too, with many scientists not publishing data that, for instance, did not show the ‘face’ of the individual in question. It is largely guesswork. “The inconsistency in reports combined with confounding factors influencing casework success suggest that much caution should be employed when gauging facial approximation success based on reported practitioner success and the success of individual forensic cases” (Stephan, 2003: 196).

So, 1) the main point here is that soft tissue work is ‘just a guess’ and the prediction methods employed to guess the soft tissue have not been tested. 2) faces are not ‘reconstructed’ from skulls. 3) It’s hardly ‘science’, and more of a form of art due to the guesses and large assumptions poured into the ‘technique’. 4) ‘Reconstructions’ don’t ‘work’ because they help us ‘find’ people, as there is a lot more going on there than the freak-chance happenings of finding a person based on a ‘reconstruction’ which was probably due to chance. Hayes (2015) also writes: “Their actual ability to meaningfully represent either an individual or a museum collection is questionable, as facial reconstructions created for display and published within academic journals show an enduring preference for applying invalidated methods.

Stephan and Henneberg (2001) write: “It is concluded that it is rare for facial approximations to be sufficiently accurate to allow identification of a target individual above chance. Since 403 incorrect identifications were made out of 592 identification scenarios, facial approximation should be considered to be a highly inaccurate and unreliable forensic technique. These results suggest that facial approximations are not very useful in excluding individuals to whom skeletal remains may not belong.

Wilkinson (2010) largely agrees, but states that ‘artistic interpretation’ should be used only when “particularly for the morphology of the ears and mouth, and with the skin for an ageing adult” but that “The greatest accuracy is possible when information is available from preserved soft tissue, from a portrait, or from a pathological condition or healed injury.” But she also writes: “… the laboratory studies of the Manchester method suggest that facial reconstruction can reproduce a sufficient likeness to allow recognition by a close friend or family member.

So to sum up: 1) There is insufficient data for tissue thickness. This just becomes guesswork and, of course, is up to artistic ‘interpretation’, and then becomes subjective to whichever individual artist does the ‘reconstruction’. Cartilage, skin and fat does not fossilize (only in very rare cases and I am not aware of any human cases). 2) There is a lack of methodological standardization. There is no single method to use to ‘guesstimate’ things like tissue thickness and other soft tissue that does not fossilize. 3) They are very subjective! For instance, if the artist has any type of idea in his head of what the individual ‘may have’ looked like, his presuppositions may go from his head to his ‘reconstruction’, thusly biasing a look he/she will believe is true. I think this is the case for Mitochondrial Eve; just because she lived in Africa doesn’t mean that she looks similar to any modern Africans alive today.

I would make the claim that these ‘reconstructions’ are not science, they’re just the artwork of people who have assumptions of what people used to look like (for instance, with Nefertiti) and they take their assumptions and make them part of their artwork, their ‘reconstruction’. So if you are going to view the special that will be on tomorrow night, keep in the back of your mind that the ‘reconstruction’ has tons of unvalidated assumptions thrown into it. So, no, Nefertiti wasn’t ‘white’ and Nefertiti wasn’t ‘white washed’; since these ‘methods’ are highly flawed and highly subjective, we should not state that “This is what Nefertiti used to look like”, because it probably is very, very far from the truth. Do not fall for facial ‘reconstructions’.


Problems With Forensic Facial “Reconstruction”: Implications for the Facial “Reconstruction” of Ancient Hominin

1050 words

Forensic facial reconstruction is the process by which a face is reconstructed from a deceased individual’s “skeletal remains through an amalgamation of artistry, forensic science, anthropology, osteology, and anatomy.” This technique is used largely only when skeletal remains are the only evidence at the scene of a crime. Perhaps most famously, it was used in the facial reconstruction of Mitochondrial Eve—but just how accurate is forensic facial reconstruction?

The average person may believe that forensic facial reconstruction is successful and a good proxy for what an individual may have looked like. This is bolstered by the fact that people hear of stories in which facial reconstruction are successful, never hearing of the countless number of cases in which the “reconstruction” fails to identify anyone.

Numerous papers in the literature, though, do show that forensic facial reconstruction does have a high success rate. For instance, Lee et al (2011) and Wilkinson et al (2006) show that this method has a considerable chance of getting facial morphology in the ballpark of how they look. However, this was done on live subjects and is of no use for Mitochondrial Eve/deceased individuals. Facial reconstructions of the deceased are, for the purpose of this article, what we need to look at, not studies looking at live people. (There are also hurdles for facial recognition systems.)

One of the biggest hurdles for the accuracy of forensic facial reconstruction is that average facial tissue thickness cannot be inferred (most importantly, the lips, cartilage, skin and fat). Due to this, with no prior information to look at, the look of the skull will be subjective with the “reconstruction” looking somewhat similar due to chance. Further, the main facial features are largely determined by the shape of the skull.

Now to the fun part: Is this what Mitochondrial Eve really looked like?


There are a number of features that are problematic to infer from these facial reconstructions. Lips, ears, skin, craniofacial muscles—all are extremely hard, or next to impossible, to predict if the only thing we had was a skeleton. Further, since there are few tested relationships between soft and hard tissue for modern humans “it is clear that the use of facial approximation techniques on ancestral skulls of modern Homo are fundamentally flawed, as previously reported by Montagu” (Stephan, 2003). Since soft tissue quickly decays, it is left up to artistic interpretation. Further, attempting to map ape morphology since we diverged a few million years before is misleading, due to the fact that hard and soft tissue relationships are not likely to be the same for apes and our hominin ancestors.

Now that we know the so-called “reconstruction” of Mitochondrial Eve is not what she really looked like, there are a few more problems with this method I’d like to go over.

Forensic facial reconstruction is used when the remains of an unidentified individual are discovered. If the bones of the deceased are all that forensic artists have to go off of, the finished product may be extremely subjective/biased. People who believe that forensic facial reconstruction truly works may say “It works all the time. If it didn’t, how would it be able to solve crimes?” Success rates for the identification of individuals ranges from 50 to 100 percent (Stephan, 2003: 196), and so, the belief that “reconstructions” are largely accurate continue to persist.

However, like with the case of the famous stereotype threat with a modicum of unpublished studies, the “success” of forensic facial reconstruction is also skewed by non-reporting of unsuccessful cases

It is also rare for forensic facial approximation to be to be better than chance, with 403 incorrect facial identifications out of 592 identification scenarios in one study (Stephan and Henneberg, 2001). Facial reconstruction has the greatest accuracy if there is any knowledge of past injuries for the individual,  a photo, and soft tissue. Obviously, in the case of Mitochondrial Eve, we don’t have a photo nor do we have soft tissue and knowledge of past injuries are a non-factor. So it seems that if some people claim to know what the first AMH looked like, it’s probably “just a guess”, and a pretty bad one at that due to the no knowledge of hard and soft facial tissue in the hominin lineage.

The hardest part about facial reconstruction is reconstructing soft tissues accurately since they quickly decompose. This is even more of a problem for people who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago. We’ve never seen any alive so we don’t know what they may have looked like to be able to infer what Mitochondrial Eve would have looked like. Things like lips/mouth, skin, hair, and ears are largely up to artistic interpretation, which are subjective in nature. Craniofacial morphology has also changed in the past 200 thousand years, which may be due to a decrease in testosterone/androgen receptors.

If we can’t identify humans with facial recognition better than chance, what makes anyone think that we can even have the slightest idea of how Mitochondrial Eve looked—when some of the most important parts of the phenotype aren’t around to observe and thus subjectivity then comes into play. Any “reconstructions” you come across, you should take with a grain of salt. It’s next to impossible to know what ancient hominins may have looked like due to the absence of soft tissue, and so any phenotype that a so-called “reconstruction” may give is, largely, up to the interpretation of the individual artist.

With our current technology, it’s next to impossible to ascertain what Mitochondrial Eve—or any other ancient hominin for that matter—may have looked like.


Lee, W., Wilkinson, C. M., & Hwang, H. (2011). An Accuracy Assessment of Forensic Computerized Facial Reconstruction Employing Cone-Beam Computed Tomography from Live Subjects. Journal of Forensic Sciences,57(2), 318-327. doi:10.1111/j.1556-4029.2011.01971.x

Stephan, C. (2003). Anthropological facial ‘reconstruction’ – recognizing the fallacies, ‘unembracing’ the errors, and realizing method limits. Science & Justice,43(4), 193-200. doi:10.1016/s1355-0306(03)71776-6

Stephan, C. N., & Henneberg, M. (2001). Building Faces from Dry Skulls: Are They Recognized Above Chance Rates? Journal of Forensic Sciences,46(3). doi:10.1520/jfs14993j

Wilkinson, C., Rynn, C., Peters, H., Taister, M., Kau, C. H., & Richmond, S. (2006). A Blind Accuracy Assessment of Computer-Modeled Forensic Facial Reconstruction Using Computed Tomography Data From Live Subjects. Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology,2(3), 179-188. doi:10.1385/fsmp:2:3:179

Wilkinson, C. (2010). Facial reconstruction—anatomical art or artistic anatomy? Journal of Anatomy,216(2), 235-250. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7580.2009.01182.x