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

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The new 3D model: Neanderthals were a separate species to us, but similar in so many ways
By Jonathan Amos, Rebecca Morelle and Alison Francis
BBC Science News

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 would have looked like when she was alive.

It is based on the flattened, shattered remains of a skull whose bones were so soft when excavated they had the consistency of “a well-dunked biscuit”.

Researchers first had to strengthen the fragments before reassembling them.

Expert palaeoartists then created the 3D model.

The representation appears in a new BBC Studios documentary for Netflix called Secrets of the Neanderthals, 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 she can help us connect with who they were,” said Dr Emma Pomeroy, a palaeoanthropologist on the project from University of Cambridge.

“It’s extremely exciting and a massive privilege actually to be able to work with the remains of any individual but especially one as special as her,” she told BBC News.

Dr Emma Pomeroy has been entrusted with the precious skull, which is on loan from the Kurdish authorities

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

When a British group was invited back by the Kurdish authorities in 2015, they soon chanced upon a new skeleton – dubbed Shanidar Z – that comprised much of the individual’s upper-body, including the spine, shoulders, arms and hands.

The skull was largely all present, too, but squashed into a 2cm (0.7in)-thick layer, probably by a rock that had fallen from the roof of the cave at some point in the distant past.

“The skull was as flat as a pizza, basically,” said Cambridge’s Prof Graeme Barker, who leads the new excavations at Shanidar.

“It’s a remarkable journey to go from that to what you see now. As an archaeologist, you can sometimes get blasé about what you’re doing. But every now and then you are brought up short by the fact you are touching the past. We forget just what an extraordinary thing it is.”

Shanidar Cave has yielded the remains of at least 10 Neanderthal men, women and children

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

The complicated jigsaw puzzle took an archaeological conservator more than a year to complete.

The rebuilt skull was then surface-scanned and a 3D print given to Dutch artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis, who are renowned for their skill in creating anatomically faithful representations of ancient people from their bone and fossil remains.

But as intriguing as the sculpture is, with her rather contemplative expression, it is the original skeleton that holds the real value.

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

The team is pretty sure “she is a she”.

Pelvic bones would help the determination but those were not recovered with the upper-part of the body.

Instead the researchers have relied on certain dominant proteins found in the tooth enamel that are associated with female genetics. The slight stature of the skeleton also supports the interpretation.

How old? She probably died in her mid-40s, indicated again by her teeth which are worn down almost to the roots.

“By the time the teeth are getting this worn, chewing is not as effective as it would have been – so she’s not able to eat in quite the same way,” explained Dr Pomeroy.

“We’ve got some other indications of poor dental health – some infections, some gum disease as well. By this time, I think she was getting to the natural end of life.”

Neanderthals were long regarded as a brutish, unsophisticated species, but no longer

For a long time, scientists considered Neanderthals brutish and unsophisticated by comparison with our species.

But that view has been transformed since the discoveries at Shanidar.

The cave is famous for displaying what appears to be some kind of burial practice. Bodies were carefully placed in a gully next to a tall rock pillar. All the dead shared a similar orientation in how they were laid out.

Dr Emma Pomeroy: “I think she can help us connect with who they were”

Pollen throughout one skeleton led some to argue these Neanderthals might have been interred with flowers, suggestive perhaps of a spiritual awakening, even religion.

But the British team thinks it more likely the pollen was left by later burrowing bees, or perhaps from flowering branches that were placed on top of the bodies.

“Not because of the flowers on the branches but because the branches themselves could have prevented the likes of hyenas getting at the bodies,” said Prof Chris Hunt of Liverpool John Moores University.

“I would hesitate to use the word ‘burial’; I think I would use the word ‘placement’ to get away from the idea of a vicar and the church. But there’s absolutely no doubt that they maintained a tradition of this is where you put grandma.”

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

Additional reporting by Gwyndaf Hughes.


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