About a year ago, in a synthetic biology class at London’s Royal College of Art, 24-year-old Marguerite Humeau learned about the work of Japanese researcher Hideyuki Sawada.
You might have seen his work in a recent viral video: a creepy, dismembered mouth "singing" a Japanese lullaby. That mouth has been called the most mechanically accurate talking robot, with real moving lips, a windpipe that flexes and expands, and even lungs — a pressurized air tank.
Humeau was inspired to do the same thing. But with animals.
"I realized there was no area of science that specialized in extinct sound," she says.
Enlarge this image Marguerite Humeau’s ‘Lucy’ reconstructs the voicebox of an ancient hominid. Marguerite Humeau That was a year ago.
Since then, Humeau has completed two works of extinct sound, the first of which is Australopithecus Afarensis. You might know her as Lucy — one of the earliest known hominids.
Lucy Finds Her Voice
To recreate Lucy’s voice, Humeau studied available skeletal data from Lucy’s remains. As best she could, she constructed synthetic versions of the resonance cavities in Lucy’s skull. She even spoke to the Martin Birchall, a British doctor who performed only the second successful human larynx transplant on a California woman earlier this year.
"He told me this very funny story," Humeau says. "I was thinking the woman would get the voice of the donor. And actually she recovered her own voice, meaning that the specificity of the voice doesn’t come from the larynx itself — but from the way you shape air in your lungs and the way it resonates in your resonance cavities. So it meant I was on the right track."
After more meetings with paleontologists and even an ear, nose and throat doctor, Humeau set to work reconstructing Lucy’s voice box out of resin, silicone and rubber. The result is a haunting yowl that sounds a lot like a human groan.
"It was an interesting being to me," she says. "What makes the difference between a human voice and an animal sound? The difference is the brain, so we think before we talk. I mean, for most people."
A Shaggy Sequel
Enlarge this image Marguerite Humeau worked with the the Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin to study the resonance cavities of elephants, a distant mammoth relative. Marguerite Humeau About the same time she was working on Lucy, Humeau decided she wanted to go bigger.
How much bigger? Woolly mammoth bigger.
She met with more experts, elephant vocalization specialists, even the guy who advised Stephen Speilberg on the dinosaur sounds in Jurassic Park.
French explorer Bernard Buigues was one of her most helpful sources.
"He has actually been able to touch these animals. They are completely preserved. And so he told me about the smell of them, and being able to touch the fur of a mammoth that lived 10,000 years ago."
Both works — Lucy and the mammoth — went on display earlier this year at the Royal College of Art. And Humeau was told that children would run in fear from the mammoth’s chest-thumping growl.
"I would have loved to have seen that," she says. "That was the whole purpose!"