It’s a shame that skulls, by and large, have a negative image: as symbols of death; memento mori, reminding us of our own mortality; grisly headhunter trophies; the skull & crossbones warning of the pirate flag – an iconography not overwhelmingly positive or cheerful.
That does a disservice to a magnificently effective wonder of nature and an object a great beauty (if you look at it in the right way). The story of hominid and hominin evolution has been to a significant extent told through skull fossils.
Skulls should be loved and admired for what they are, and not treated differently from any other object of desire. That’s a roundabout way of saying that, just as people might have a favourite painting, piece of music, food, car, suit or dress, the skull aficionado might well have a favourite skull. Mine is, without doubt, the adult male gorilla skull – a love affair that began forty years ago (improbably) during a holiday in Greece.
It is an odd story. While staying at a holiday apartment owned by friends, I met an elderly Greek doctor from Athens who owned a holiday home nearby. Very hospitably, he invited our group for drinks at his villa overlooking the sea.
Sipping my glass of wine and dipping pita into a bowl of hummus, I was thinking idly how pleasant life must be for a well-heeled, retired Athenian doctor with a beautiful holiday home, when my eye was drawn to the fireplace in his parlour.
Unused, of course, during summer months, it contained only – a gorilla skull. I was first shocked, then captivated and, from that moment, a love affair began. The good doctor allowed me to handle his treasure and explained to me that it had been given to him many years ago while he was engaged in charitable work in West Africa. Rather rudely, I asked him if he would consider selling it.
He wouldn’t, absolutely not! – although, ironically, the skull was stolen the following year, while the doctor was wintering at his Athens home.
Love at first sight – a gorilla skull unexpectedly found on holiday in Greece.
Perhaps one of the most noticeable features of the male gorilla skull is the sagittal crest, a feature that tends to be present on the skulls of adult animals that rely on powerful biting. The skulls of some dinosaurs, such as Tyrannosaurus, show a well-developed sagittal crest.
Among mammals, tigers and other big cats, sea lions and many other carnivores have sagittal crests, as do some leaf eaters, including tapirs and some apes, notably gorillas and orangutans.
Skull of a male western lowland gorilla, exhibiting a well-developed sagittal crest
The sagittal crest is located on the top of the cranium – front-to-back, so to speak – and is where the muscles for chewing food attach. In gorillas, these muscles are much larger than in humans, owing to the type of food the gorilla consumes.
A gorilla’s diet is varied, but contains a large amount of roughage, so a strong jaw and large teeth are needed. In fact, the bite force of a male silverback gorilla is extremely high – measured in the region of 1300 PSI, compared with the African lion, which has a bite force of around 690 PSI.
As with many things in nature, sagittal crests on male gorilla skulls show considerable variation. In some silverbacks, the crest can stand as much as 50mm (2in) in height. A large male gorilla needs a lot of jaw muscle power to process all the food it eats; also silverbacks bite when fighting for dominance and in defence against predators such as leopards. Gorillas have the same dental formula as humans, 126.96.36.199, which translates as two incisors, one canine, two premolars and three molars on each side of the mouth.
This is repeated in both upper and lower jaw. But, compared with humans, gorillas have larger, flatter molars necessitated by their diet, larger incisors for stripping and tearing fruit, and males have well-developed canine teeth for display and fighting.
Adult male gorilla skull with a less pronounced sagittal crest.
To me, the male gorilla skull is a beautiful thing, and a perfect blend of form and function.
Lloyd Leblanc, a sculptor noted for his beautiful creations in bronze, made an exquisite casting of a silverback gorilla skull in his foundry. Mr Leblanc took no credit for the beauty of the piece, modestly stating that ‘it was all down to the gorilla’.
Beautiful bronze cast of a gorilla skull by sculptor Lloyd Leblanc.
© Dr Richard Thomas