What the reconstructed face of a Neanderthal tells us about life 75,000 years ago


Scientists have recreated the face of a 75,000-year-old Neanderthal woman whose flattened skull was discovered and rebuilt from hundreds of bone fragments.

The fragments the reconstruction is based on are the best preserved Neanderthal remains to be found in decades, making it the best true likeness of our ancient human relatives that we have seen so far.

Researchers excavated the woman – known as Shanidar Z – from inside a cave in Iraqi Kurdistan where the species had repeatedly returned to lay their dead to rest.

She is thought to have been an older female, around 5ft tall and in her mid-forties, according to researchers – a significant age to reach that far back in history.

While the reconstructed face shows some clear differences from modern-day humans, they are more similar than skulls had suggested, once skin and muscle had been added, the researchers said.

“The skulls of Neanderthals and humans look very different,” said Dr Emma Pomeroy, of Cambridge University, who worked on the project.

“Neanderthal skulls have huge brow ridges and lack chins, with a projecting midface that results in more prominent noses. But the recreated face suggests those differences were not so stark in life.

“It’s perhaps easier to see how interbreeding occurred between our species, to the extent that almost everyone alive today still has Neanderthal DNA,” Dr Pomeroy added.

Neanderthals are thought to have died out around 40,000 years ago, and the discoveries of new remains are few and far between.

The researchers believe that Shanidar’s remains are the top half of an individual first excavated in 1960.

The head had been crushed, possibly by rockfall, relatively soon after death – after the brain decomposed but before the cranium filled with dirt – and then compacted further by tens of thousands of years of sediment.

When archaeologists found it, the skull was flattened to around two centimetres thick.

After they had unearthed the remains, they used a glue-like substance, known as a consolidant, to strengthen the bones and surrounding sediment. They removed the remains in dozens of small foil-wrapped blocks from under seven-and-a-half metres of soil and rock within the heart of the cave.

The researchers then took miniature CT scans of each block before gradually diluting the glue and using the scans to guide extraction of bone fragments.

The conservators pieced over 200 bits of skull together freehand to return it to its original shape, including upper and lower jaws.

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