30 000 y.o. Homo sapiens 3D VR animation
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30 000 years ago Sungir people — European early modern humans — were living on the territory of Central Russia. In the hostile conditions of Ice Age they reached an amazingly high level of craftsmanship and left more than 80 000 cultural and household artifacts at the site. Sungir, which has been a seasonal hunting camp, is considered the northernmost Paleolithic settlement of Homo sapiens on the European continent. Sungir inhabitants are believed to be ancestors of today’s Northern and Eastern Europeans.

Visual Science and the RAS Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, with support from the All-Russian Science Festival “Nauka 0+”, have reconstructed the faces of the Sungir people in 3D Virtual Reality. Scientifically accurate visualization is based on skeletal remains of the Sungir children aged 10 and 13 and data from previous efforts to reconstruct the site’s inhabitants appearance.

Museums and schools around the world can access Sungir animation for free using VRScience Android app compatible with Google Cardboard or any other Cardboard-compatible VR headset at 4K resolution.

To create the visualization, two Sungir skulls were laser-scanned and photographed in high definition. The data was then run through state-of-the-art 3D modeling software, where existing data and facial reconstruction techniques were applied. The VR animation outlines the steps involved, from marking reference points on the skulls to reconstructing the soft tissues of the head, nose and ears cartilages, to creating the final “living” 3D portrait.

I like Sungir VR-animation because the reconstruction was made with high precision and attention to details. The physiognomy of the children, shown in the visualization, recalls Dolni Vestonice 15 — remains found at upper paleolithic site in Czech Republic

— Professor Jiri Svoboda, Sc.D., Head of Research Centre for Palaeolithics and Paleoanthropology at the Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

Earlier sculptural reconstructions of Sungir people made by Mikhail Gerasimov’s method were used as a base in the computer modelling process.

Gerasimov’s facial reconstruction method

In the mid-20th century, Soviet archaeologist and anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov created the first scientifically accurate method for anthropological facial reconstruction based on a person’s skull. Previously, scientists noted that there is a dependency between the shape of the skull and the elements of appearance. The anatomical and radiographic research methods used by Gerasimov allowed scientists to not only determine standards for the thickness of soft tissues along the face profile line, but also to reveal patterns in the distribution of the soft tissues’ thickness, depending on skull surface morphology development. The structure of particular facial elements was determined by individual morphological features of the skull. Gerasimov’s successors developed techniques to restore the nose and ears.

The degree of reconstruction authenticity was determined by a number of facial reconstruction projects that used the skulls of modern people, whose lifetime portraits were available. The methodology was tested mainly on forensic material.

The Gerasimov method is still in use in Russia, Europe and the United States. In recent years, reconstruction has become easier due to the introduction of ultrasound scanning and computer tomography.

Using Sungir research and VR for education

Sungir was first explored by archaeologists in 1956. 60 years of research have advanced scientific understanding of human development, migration, and the cultures of Paleolithic Europe.

Cutting-edge science combined with computer graphics is a powerful tool for promoting science among children and inspiring young people to learn about history and the natural world. The Sungir site is a global treasure. Special clothing and decorative elements suggest an amazingly high level of cultural development among Homo sapiens living 30,000 years ago. By visualizing these details with scientific rigor, we’re able to share Sungir with the widest possible audience

— Ivan Konstantinov, CEO of Visual Science
  • Creative Producer, 3D Animator, Visualizer:
    Ivan Konstantinov
  • Scientific Consultant, Screenwriter:
    Yury Stefanov, PhD
  • Chief Scientific Consultant:
    Sergey Vasilyev, PhD, RAS Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology
  • 3D Modeller, 3D Animator:
    Alexander Kovalevsky
  • Modeller, Character Artist, Facial Expressions Animator:
    Mao Lin Liao
  • Animation and Effects Supervisor:
    Sergey Ivanchuk
  • Compositing Artist, VFX Artist:
    Alexey Vaitvud
  • Modeller, Texture Artist:
    Robert Kubus
  • Creator of Microtexture of Characters:
    Philippe Froesch
  • Designer:
    Kirill Martianov
  • Costume Artist:
    Konstantin Gubry
  • Sound Producer:
    Yaroslav Storozhev
  • 3D Modeller, Programmer:
    Artur Gadzhiev
  • Composer:
    Albert Sultanov
  • Screenwriter:
    Marina Norina
  • Communications Manager:
    Anastasia Demina
  • Scientific Consultant:
    Elizaveta Veselovskaya, PhD, RAS Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology
  • Sculptor, Author of Sungir-2 Facial Reconstruction:
    Galina Lebedinskaya, PhD, RAS Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology
  • Sculptor, Author of Sungir-3 Facial Reconstruction:
    Taisia Surnina, PhD, RAS Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology
  • Textures Photographer:
    Vladislav Lifanovsky
  • Technical Consultant:
    Alexander Belyakov
  • Text Editors:
    Jon Earle, Pascal Cisse, Marina Drapkina
  • Camera Setup:
    Anton Fedorov, Dmitry Lyadukhin

We are grateful to Leonid Gusev, Managing Director at All-Russian Science Festival “Nauka 0+”, and Larisa Bakulina, Head of Press Office at Moscow State University, for their support of the project and help in project implementation.

We would like to thank Margarita Gerasimova, PhD, from RAS Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology for her valuable comments about Gerasimov’s method, and Professor Jiří Svoboda, Head of Research Centre for Palaeolithics and Paleoanthropology at the Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences, for his review of the project.

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Alan Bernstein
OC, PhD, FRSC, Executive Director at Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise (US)