Thanks to the heaps of dinosaur bones scattered across the globe, paleontologists have a vague idea of what dinosaurs looked like when they roamed the earth millions of years ago. But what they sounded like is a tougher nut to crack. Vocal chords are made of soft tissue and cartilage, which means they don’t fossilize. The roars and squawks we hear in movies aren’t exactly made up, but they certainly aren’t based on scientific fact. Marguerite Humeau has spent the last two years working with paleontologists, zoologists, engineers, and doctors to recreate the noises our scaly forebears might have made.
When Co.Design last wrote about Humeau, the young interactive designer was rapid-prototyping Wooly Mammoth vocal chords for her thesis show at the Royal Academy of Art. Since graduating, Humeau has focused on the speech boxes of three other long-extinct mammals—no small feat, given that a smattering of bones is all that remains of these creatures.
In May, the 25-year-old unveiled the fruits of her research: three massive 3-D-printed models of prehistoric vocal tracts, installed in Saint-Étienne’s Cité du Design. In Politique Fiction, Humeau has chosen to reimagine creatures from three vastly different prehistoric eras: There’s Ambulocetus, or the "walking whale," a Cetacean that could swim and walk over 50 million years before our time. Entelodont (also known as *shiver* Hell Pig) was a massive omnivore that roamed more than 20 million years ago. The youngest is Mammoth Imperator, the species of giant mammoth that Humeau recreated for her graduation show in 2011. Rendered in gleaming black and white, Humeau’s pieces look more like Zaha Hadid sculptures than ancient larynxes. The eerie, truly awesome sounds (listen above) originate in a mechanical "windpipe," connected to a plastic larynx and vibrating vocal chords. The large resonance chambers articulate the shape and length of each yowl and hoot.
Humeau calls the show Proposal for Resuscitating Prehistoric Creatures, a nod to the undercurrent of science fiction in her work. Because so little information was available about the anatomy of these creatures, she had to use her instincts as a designer—supported with counsel from hundreds of scientists—to actually redesign parts of the vocal tracts. She examined 3-D scans of similar species, like porpoises, to make educated guesses about the architecture of their older cousins, and even talked with the paleontologists who have discovered the bones of similar creatures. Still, in the end, she had to build the larynxes from scratch.
Despite spending thousands of hours researching prehistoric beasts and modeling their anatomy, Humeau considers herself more of an artist than a scientist: "the heroine of a quasi-mystic epic journey," to be exact. Her work "sets up the rebirth of cloned creatures," she explains. "They are seeking to evolve in our contemporary era." It may be a while until scientists grow dinosaur vocal tracts, but to quote a famous fictional paleontologist from the '90s, life finds a way.
[Images courtesy of Felipe Ribon and Marguerite Humeau]