Face of 75,000-year-old Neanderthal woman revealed

  • Written by Jonathan Amos, Rebecca Morrell and Alison Francis
  • BBC Science News

Image source, BBC Studios/Jamie Simmonds

Comment on the photo, New 3D Model: Neanderthals were a separate species from us, but similar in many ways

What would it be like to meet one of our closest human relatives from 75,000 years ago in the flesh?

Scientists have produced a remarkable reconstruction of what a Neanderthal woman looked like when she was alive.

It is based on the flattened, crushed remains of a skull whose bones were very soft when excavated and had a consistency similar to a “well-dipped biscuit.”

The researchers first had to strengthen the parts before reassembling them.

Then expert paleontologists created the 3D model.

This representation appears in a new documentary from BBC Studios for Netflix called Neanderthal Secrets, which examines what we know about our long-lost evolutionary cousins, who became extinct about 40,000 years ago.

The sculpture puts a face to these people.

“I think it can help us connect to their identities,” said Dr. Emma Pomeroy, the project’s paleontologist from the University of Cambridge.

She told the BBC: “It is very exciting and a privilege to be able to work with the remains of any individual, especially someone as special as her.”

Image source, BBC Studios/Jamie Simmonds

Comment on the photo, Dr Emma Pomeroy was entrusted with the precious skull on loan from the Kurdish authorities

The skull on which the model is based was found in Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is a special place where the remains of at least 10 Neanderthal men, women and children were discovered in the 1950s.

When Kurdish authorities invited a British group back in 2015, they quickly found a new skeleton – dubbed “Shanidar Z” – consisting of much of the upper body, including the spine, shoulders, arms and hands.

The skull was largely present as well, but it was compressed into a layer 2 cm (0.7 in) thick, perhaps by a rock that had fallen from the cave’s surface at some point in the distant past.

“The skull was as flat as a pizza,” said Professor Graeme Parker from Cambridge, who is leading the new excavations at Shanidar.

“It’s an amazing journey to go from that to what you see now. As an archaeologist, you can sometimes feel apathetic about what you’re doing. But every now and then, your upbringing fails because of the fact that you’re touching the past. We’ve forgotten what an extraordinary thing it is.”

Image source, Graeme Parker

Comment on the photo, The remains of at least 10 Neanderthal men, women and children were found in Shanidar Cave.

With permission from the local antiquities department, the skull fragments were brought to the UK in blocks of sediment to begin the painstaking process of editing them, stabilizing them and then putting them back together again.

The complex jigsaw puzzle took one archaeological conservator more than a year to complete.

The surface of the reconstructed skull was then scanned and a 3D print was provided to Dutch artists Adrie and Alphonse Kenes, famous for their skill in creating accurate anatomical representations of ancient people from their bones and fossil remains.

But although the statue is interesting, with its somewhat contemplative expression, it is the original skeleton that holds the real value.

Video explanation, Watch: Dr Emma Pomeroy describes the main features of the Shanidar Z skull

The team is pretty sure it’s “her”.

The pelvic bones would help with definition but the upper body is not restored.

Instead, the researchers relied on certain dominant proteins found in tooth enamel that are linked to female genetics. The slight stature of the skeleton also supports this interpretation.

how old? She probably died in her mid-forties, again indicated by her teeth being worn down almost to the roots.

“By the time teeth are worn down, chewing is not as effective as it was supposed to be, so they are not able to eat food in quite the same way,” Dr. Pomeroy explained.

“We had some other indicators of poor dental health — some infections, some gum disease as well. By this time, I think she was reaching the natural end of her life.”

Comment on the photo, Neanderthals were long viewed as brutish and unsophisticated, but that is no longer the case

For a long time, scientists considered Neanderthals to be brutish and unsophisticated compared to our species.

But this opinion has changed since the discoveries in Shanidar.

The cave is known for displaying what appears to be some type of burial practice. The bodies were carefully placed in a gully next to a tall rock pillar. All the dead had similar orientations in how they were positioned.

Image source, BBC/Gwenduff Hughes

Comment on the photo, Dr. Emma Pomeroy: “I think they can help us connect with who they are.”

Pollen scattered on one of the skeletons has led some to suggest that the Neanderthal may have been buried with flowers, perhaps suggesting a spiritual awakening, or even religion.

But the British team believes it is more likely that the pollen was left behind by bees that were later hiding, or perhaps from flowering branches that were placed on top of the corpses.

Professor Chris Hunt, from Liverpool John Morris University, said: “Not because of the flowers on the branches, but because the branches themselves would have prevented the likes of hyenas from accessing the carcasses.”

“I would hesitate to use the word ‘burial’, and I think I would use the word ‘placement’ to get away from the idea of ​​a priest and a church. But there is no doubt at all that they have kept up the tradition of this place where you can put Grandma.”

Secrets of the Neanderthals arrives on streaming platform Netflix globally on Thursday.

Additional reporting by Gwenduff Hughes.

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