Scientists have recreated the appearance of a Neanderthal woman based on her skull (7 photos)

Category: Archeology, PEGI 0+
7 May 2024

Meet Shanidar Z, a 40-year-old Neanderthal. Thanks to scientists who reconstructed her skull, we can appreciate the appearance of this woman who lived 75,000 years ago.

Shanidar is a cave in Iraqi Kurdistan where the remains of a Neanderthal woman were discovered in 2018. She was named Shanidar Z.

Scientists spent nine months assembling Shanidar Z's skull from 200 bone fragments.

"There's some artistic interpretation here, but it's based on a real skull and real evidence of what we know about these people," says Dr Emma Pomeroy, a palaeoanthropologist and associate professor of archeology at the University of Cambridge, who excavated the skeleton.

The skull was crushed, possibly by a rockfall shortly after death, so its reconstruction resembles assembling a highly complex three-dimensional puzzle.

Neanderthals lived in Europe, the Middle East and the mountains of Central Asia for about 300,000 years, overlapping with our species, Homo sapiens, for about 30,000 years. Evidence confirms that Neanderthals and modern humans met and interbred during this period.

The reconstruction of Shanidar Z's skull is featured in the new Netflix documentary Secrets of the Neanderthals, produced by the BBC.

“She actually has a fairly large face for her size,” Dr. Pomeroy explains in the film. “She has quite large brow ridges, but if you saw her today in modern clothes, you wouldn’t pay much attention to her.”

Besides the prominent brow ridges, another difference between the anatomy of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens is that the former did not have a chin (like other primates), the paleoanthropologist added. There was only a massive lower jaw, but there was no protrusion on it.

At the time of excavation, Pomeroy was unable to immediately determine the sex of Shanidar Z because the lower part of the body, including the pelvic bones, was not preserved.

Researchers concluded that Shanidar Z was female after using a technique that involved sequencing proteins within tooth enamel. In addition, after analyzing the degree of wear on the teeth and bones, they suggested that Shanidar Z was about 40 years old at the time of burial.

“It's a reasonable estimate, but we can't be 100 percent sure she wasn't older,” Pomeroy explained. “We can say that this is a person who lived a relatively long life.” For that society, she would probably be quite important in terms of knowledge and life experience.”

As for the individual's height, researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Liverpool estimate that its height was about 5 feet (1.5 meters). They came to this conclusion by comparing the length and diameter of the arm bones of Shanidar Z with data on modern humans.

Shanidar Z is the first Neanderthal specimen found in a cave in the foothills of Iraq in 50 years.

Scientists have shown that it was common for Neanderthals from Shanidar Cave to lay their dead on the ground, refuting long-held beliefs about the cruelty and insensitivity of representatives of this species.

Finds of decorative shells and red ocher pigment at Neanderthal sites also indicate that they had some kind of art. This means that Neanderthals had symbolic abilities that were previously thought to be uniquely human.

After excavating the skull, the researchers used a special adhesive substance to strengthen and harden the found bone fragments. They then collected them into small blocks of cave sediment and sent them for analysis to the University of Cambridge.

A team of archaeologists then took microtomographs of each block, and lead conservation specialist Dr. Lucia Lopez-Paulin assembled more than 200 skull fragments by eye to restore it to its original shape.

The reconstructed skull was scanned and 3D printed, after which Shanidar Z's face was recreated by renowned paleoartists Adri and Alphonse Kennis. As Pomeroy explained, reconstructing the Neanderthal skull helps "bridge the gap between modern anatomy and what it was like 75,000 years ago."

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