Scientists have reconstructed the face of a Neanderthal from 75,000 years ago

About 75,000 years ago, a woman in her 40s was laid to rest in a cave. Her body was carefully placed in a gully, with her left hand positioned under her head. A rock was even used as a cushion behind her head.

The woman found in 2018 in the cave in Iraqi Kurdistan, known as Shanidar Z, belonged to the Neanderthal species. Neanderthals, an ancient human species, went extinct approximately 40,000 years ago.

Scientists have spent nine months reconstructing the skull of a Neanderthal woman using 200 bone fragments. By using the face and skull contours as a guide, they were able to create a striking recreation of what she may have looked like. This incredible reconstruction is showcased in the new documentary “Secrets of the Neanderthals,” produced by BBC for Netflix and available for streaming on Thursday.

Dr. Emma Pomeroy, a paleoanthropologist and associate professor with the University of Cambridge’s department of archaeology, discovered the skeleton and appears in the new film. According to Pomeroy, the skulls of Neanderthals, with pronounced brow ridges and no chins, look different from those of our own species, Homo sapiens. However, the Shanidar Z facial reconstruction suggests that these differences might not have been so noticeable in life.

According to the artist, there may be some artistic interpretation involved, but the core of the artwork is based on real skulls and factual information about the people they represent.

According to Pomeroy, the researcher, the woman in question has a relatively large face compared to her size. He also noted that she has prominent brow ridges, which is unusual but may not be immediately noticeable when she is dressed in modern clothing.

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Neanderthals roamed throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the Central Asia Mountains for approximately 300,000 years. Interestingly, they coexisted with modern humans for around 30,000 years. DNA analysis of present-day humans has provided insights into these encounters, showing that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens occasionally interacted and even interbred.

The researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Liverpool estimated that the specimen stood at a height of approximately 5 feet (1.5 meters). They made this determination by comparing the length and diameter of her arm bones with data on modern humans. Additionally, an analysis of wear and tear on her teeth and bones indicated that she was in her mid-40s at the time of her death.

According to Pomeroy, the estimated age of the individual cannot be confirmed with absolute certainty. However, it is believed that this person had lived a relatively long life and would have held significant importance in their society due to their knowledge and life experience.

The cave where Shanidar Z was buried has gained fame in archaeological circles due to the discovery of a Neanderthal grave back in 1960. This finding challenged the prevailing notion that Neanderthals were primitive beings, as it suggested that they may have buried their dead with flowers. However, recent research by Pomeroy’s team has raised doubts about this flower burial theory. Instead, they propose that the pollen found in the graves could have been brought in by pollinating bees.

Over the years, scientists have discovered more and more evidence of the intelligence, sophistication, and complexity of Neanderthals. This includes their ability to create art, use string, and make tools.

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The researchers have discovered that Neanderthals had a unique practice of burying their dead at Shanidar Cave. They found the remains of 10 Neanderthals at the site, and it appears that half of them were intentionally buried one after another. This suggests that Neanderthals had a ritualistic approach to honoring their deceased.

Research suggests that the inhabitants of Shanidar Cave, although they may not have laid bouquets of flowers to honor their dead like modern humans, were likely an empathetic species. One male Neanderthal buried at the cave had various disabilities, including being deaf, having a paralyzed arm, and suffering from head trauma that likely resulted in partial blindness. Despite these challenges, the Neanderthal lived for a significant period of time, indicating that he must have received care and support from his community.

According to Pomeroy, Shanidar Z is the first Neanderthal to be found in the cave in over 50 years. However, there is potential for more discoveries at the site. While filming the documentary in 2022, Pomeroy made additional findings, including a left shoulder blade, rib bones, and a right hand belonging to another Neanderthal.

According to her, our current understanding suggests that this is most likely the remains of a single individual that has been disturbed.

Reconstructing Shanidar Z’s skull, which had been crushed shortly after death, was described by Pomeroy as a “high-stakes 3D jigsaw puzzle.” To analyze the fossilized bones, they were hardened with a glue-like substance, extracted in small blocks of cave sediment, and carefully wrapped in foil before being sent to the University of Cambridge.

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Using advanced scanning and 3D printing technology, the team successfully created a precise replica of the reconstructed skull. This remarkable feat served as the foundation for the talented Danish paleoartists, Adrie and Alfons Kennis, who meticulously added layers of fabricated muscle and skin to unveil the captivating face of Shanidar Z.

According to Pomeroy, the reconstruction was able to bridge the gap between anatomy and 75,000 years of time.

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