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3D Printing and Clay Bring Kennis & Kennis’ Historic Reconstructions to Life

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The Kennis brothers at their studio in Arnhem, working on a model of a Neanderthal woman for the National Geographic Society. [Image: Alamy Stock Photo]

Just as forensic artists have used 3D printing to give unidentified murder victims a realistic face, archaeologists and researchers use the technology to provide faces for historical figures. Hominid palaeo-artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis, from Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions, are twin brothers from the Netherlands who specialize in palaeontological reconstructions. Together from their home studio, the two model makers are some of the best known sculptors of full early human reconstructions in Europe.

They’ve completed roughly 10 full-sized reconstructions so far, covering the highlights of human history – famous Australopithecus afarensis Lucy, Homo erectus, Neanderthal, and Homo sapiens Cheddar Man, with his pale blue eyes and dark hair and skin. This last, which is a model of an early Briton, caused some uproar because it turned the idea that humans adapted to having paler skin after entering Europe 45,000 years ago on its head.

(L-R) Adrie and Alfons Kennis pose with their full face reconstruction model, made from the skull of a 10,000 year old man, known as ‘Cheddar Man’ [Image: AFP]

What brings the controversy is how the Kennis brothers make their models expressive and animated, which makes them seem more human.

“If we have to make a reconstruction, we always want it to be a fascinating one, not some dull white dummy that’s just come out of the shower,” said Adrie Kennis.

Neanderthal woman and child. [Image: Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions]

Each full-sized reconstruction takes half a year, starting with rebuilding the skeleton through 3D printing and computer scans and fossils. Once the completed skeleton is suspended with wire cables, silicone cartilage is added between the vertebrae to make the spine flexible.

Kennis said, “We use a kind of paraffin wax clay to sculpt the muscles, and we make arteries using small ropes which lie over the muscles.”

They wrap layers of a different sort of clay around the reconstruction to serve as a skin, and then make a mold to replicate it in silicone.

“We do five layers of silicone to make the skin colour, because real skin is translucent,” explained Kennis.

The brothers work hard to make their sculptures accurate, but also to give them a sense of individuality.

To achieve this, they keep up on the latest information regarding the human and Neanderthal pelvis, then bring their knowledge into life by rebuilding skeletons and musculature for each sculpture they work on. DNA testing advances give them the ability to add specific genetic traits, such as Cheddar Man’s blue eyes and dark, curly hair.

“Many people were surprised by his dark skin, but for us, it was not a big surprise,” said Kennis. “At least three other hunter-gatherer skeletons have been found in Europe from around the same time, and DNA tests show they all have that strange combination of dark skin and blue eyes.”

(L-R): Homo sapiens and a Neanderthal man. [Image: Kevin Webb, The Natural History Museum, London]

The two are also amateur anthropologists, influenced by both the fossilized skulls themselves and modern tribal people from more primitive societies. Understanding the different forms of adaptations different populations have developed to live in their unique cultures and environmental conditions is important to the pair’s work in reconstructing lifelike resemblances. This is why their 3D printed models many times have tribal tattoos, interesting hairstyles, and more modern poses.

Kennis said, “We bring it to the museum, and many times the museum directors are shocked, because they find it too extreme, too alien.”

Early European man: his DNA is 9% Neanderthal. [Image: Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions]

But, their gift for giving the models personalities through facial expressions – which can take up to a full month – helps with the shock.

“There are some things the skull can’t tell you. You never know how much fat someone had around their eyes, or the thickness of the lips, or the exact position and shape of the nostrils,” said Kennis.

I remember going to museums as a child and thinking how boring the models were because they themselves looked bored; I was always ready to move on to animals or artwork. But Kennis models actually allow museum-goers to look at the past with a little more familiarity, even if they are initially shocked by how…well, human, the models appear.

Speaking of shock, two reconstructions the brothers completed for the Natural History Museum (NHM) London demonstrate the differences between early humans and Neanderthals. They kept the models nude and in a relaxed pose, so people could see the anatomical differences between them.

“We like to keep them naked because then you can see the features clearly: the Neanderthals were short with big hands and a broad pelvis, the first Homo sapiens were very slender,” Kennis explained.

“Chris Stringer, the head of anthropology at the NHM, gets emails all the time, usually from fathers, saying it’s scandalous that his daughter had to see a naked guy in the museum. It’s always parents that make the problems.”

Adrie and Alfons Kennis with their model of Ötzi the iceman. [Image: AFP, Getty Images]

One model is from the more recent past – Ötzi the Iceman, created for the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy in 2011, lived in the Tyrolese mountains 5-6,000 years ago. Ötzi was mummified in ice, which meant the brothers could learn more about him, such as his age and overall physique.

“His skull has an underbite, and his face points downwards: not a pretty face,” Kennis said.

“We did some research around the village where he was found, and many people thought he was young and handsome – a Johnny Weissmuller kind of guy. You should have seen how disappointed they were when they saw our reconstruction.”

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at or share your thoughts below. 

[Source: The Guardian]


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