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

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Unveiling the Face of Our Prehistoric Cousin: A Neanderthal Woman Comes to Life

Imagine stepping back in time and coming face-to-face with one of our closest human relatives from 75,000 years ago. Thanks to the remarkable work of scientists and palaeoartists, we now have a glimpse into the past, with a stunning reconstruction of what a Neanderthal woman may have looked like when she was alive.

The story behind this remarkable feat begins with the discovery of a flattened, shattered skull in Shanidar Cave, located in the rugged terrain of Iraqi Kurdistan. When the bones were first excavated, they were so soft that they had the consistency of “a well-dunked biscuit.” Researchers had to painstakingly strengthen the fragile fragments before they could begin the process of reassembling the skull.

Once the reconstruction was complete, the skull was scanned and a 3D model was created, which was then handed over to the renowned Dutch artists, Adrie and Alfons Kennis. These palaeoartists are renowned for their ability to create anatomically accurate representations of ancient people based on their bone and fossil remains.

The resulting sculpture is a captivating depiction of a Neanderthal woman, with a contemplative expression that invites us to connect with our long-lost evolutionary cousins. “I think she can help us connect with who they were,” said Dr. Emma Pomeroy, a palaeoanthropologist from the University of Cambridge who was involved in the project.

The Shanidar Cave has long been a site of fascination for researchers, as it has yielded the remains of at least 10 Neanderthal men, women, and children. When a British team was invited back to the site in 2015, they made a remarkable discovery – a new skeleton, dubbed Shanidar Z, which comprised much of the individual’s upper body, including the spine, shoulders, arms, and hands.

The skull, though largely intact, was found to be squashed into a thin layer, likely due to a rock that had fallen from the cave’s roof at some point in the distant past. “The skull was as flat as a pizza, basically,” said Professor Graeme Barker, who leads the new excavations at Shanidar.

Despite the challenges posed by the fragmented remains, the researchers were able to painstakingly free, stabilize, and reassemble the skull, a process that took an archaeological conservator more than a year to complete. The rebuilt skull was then scanned, and the 3D print was handed over to the Kennis brothers to create the faithful reconstruction.

While the sculpture is undoubtedly captivating, it is the original skeleton that holds the real value for. Through careful analysis of the remains, they were able to determine that the individual was likely a female, based on certain dominant proteins found in the tooth enamel that are associated with female genetics. The slight stature of the skeleton also supports this interpretation.

The researchers estimate that the Neanderthal woman was in her mid-40s when she passed away, as indicated by the wear on her teeth. “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.”

The discoveries at Shanidar Cave have been instrumental in transforming our understanding of Neanderthals, who were once considered brutish and unsophisticated in comparison to our own species. The apparent burial practices observed at the site, with bodies carefully placed in a gully next to a tall rock pillar, suggest a level of cultural sophistication that challenges the long-held stereotypes.

While the debate continues around the interpretation of the pollen found at the site, whether it was left by burrowing bees or placed as part of a ritual, one thing is clear: the Neanderthals of Shanidar Cave maintained a tradition of honoring their dead, a practice that connects them to our own human experience.

As we gaze upon the face of this Neanderthal woman, we are reminded of the shared humanity that binds us across the vast expanse of time. Her story, preserved in the fragile remains of her skeleton, invites us to explore the rich tapestry of our evolutionary past and to consider the profound connections that tie us to our long-lost cousins.

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