May 15

Scientists reconstruct face of a Neanderthal dating back 75,000 years

The BBC reports “The face of a Neanderthal woman has been painstakingly recreated from skull fragments found in Kurdistan. Fay Bound Alberti: From a flaky skull, found “as flat as a pizza” on a cave floor in northern Iraq, the face of a 75,000-year-old Neanderthal woman named “Shanidar Z” has been reconstructed. With her calm and considered expression, Shanidar Z looks like a thoughtful, approachable, even kindly middle-aged woman. She is a far cry from the snarling, animalistic stereotype of the Neanderthal first created in 1908 after the discovery of the “old man of La Chapelle”.

On the basis of the old man and the first relatively complete skeleton of its kind to be found, scientists made a series of presumptions about Neanderthal character. They believed Neanderthals to have a low, receding forehead, protruding midface and heavy brow representing a baseness and stupidity found among “lower races”. These presumptions were influenced by prevailing ideas about the scientific measurement of skulls and racial hierarchy – ideas now debunked as racist.

This reconstruction set the scene for understanding Neanderthals for decades, and indicated how far modern humans had come. By contrast, this newest facial reconstruction, based on research at the University of Cambridge, invites us to empathise and see the story of Neanderthals as part of a broader human history.

“I think she can help us connect with who they were”, said paleoarchaeologist Emma Pomeroy, a member of the Cambridge team behind the research, while speaking in a new Netflix documentary, Secrets of the Neanderthals. The documentary delves into the mysteries surrounding the Neanderthals and what their fossil record tells us about their lives and disappearance.

It was not paleoanthropologists, however, who created Shanidar Z but well-known paleoartists Kennis and Kennis, who sculpted a modern human face with a recognisable sensibility and expressions. This drive towards historical facial reconstruction, which invokes emotional connection is increasingly commonplace through 3D technologies and will become more so with generative AI.

As a historian of emotion and the human face, I can tell you there is more art than science at work here. Indeed, it is good art, but questionable history.

Technologies like DNA testing, 3D scans and CT imaging help artists to generate faces like Shanidar Z’s, creating a naturalistic and accessible way of viewing people from the past. But we should not underestimate the importance of subjective and creative interpretation, and how it draws on contemporary presumptions, as well as informing them.

Faces are a product of culture and environment as much as skeletal structure and Shanidar Z’s face is largely based on guesswork. It is true that we can assert from the shape of the bones and a heavy brow, for instance, that an individual had a pronounced forehead or other baseline facial structures. But there’s no “scientific” evidence about how that person’s facial muscles, nerves and fibres overlaid skeletal remains.

Kennis and Kennis have attested to this themselves in an interview with the Guardian in 2018 about their practice. “There are some things the skull can’t tell you,” admits Adrie Kennis. “You never know how much fat someone had around their eyes, or the thickness of the lips, or the exact position and shape of the nostrils.”

It’s an enormous imaginative and creative work to invent the skin colour, forehead lines or half-smile. All these features suggest friendliness, accessibility, approachability – qualities defining modern emotional communication. “If we have to make a reconstruction,” Adrie Kennis explained, “we always want it to be a fascinating one, not some dull white dummy that’s just come out of the shower.”

Overlaying skeletal remains with modern affect reasserts the recent re-envisioning of Neanderthals as “just like us” rather than club-wielding thugs.

Only in the past 20 years have Neanderthals been discovered to share modern human DNA, coinciding with the discovery of many similarities over differences. For instance, burial practices, caring of the sick and a love of art.”


Link to the video

2 Responses to “Scientists reconstruct face of a Neanderthal dating back 75,000 years”

  1. Steven B

    Ok. Yes. One may reassemble a skull. I have no problem there. However, are they not making an assumption that they had human features so they used human skin thicknesses and muscle structures? What if they assumed it had ape features and used, for example, a chimp’s skin thicknesses and facial muscle structures? What would be the result if one had a chimp skull and put human features based from human anatomy data?

    I guess my point is, if one assumes they were human looking is that not the look you are going to get? Without one found frozen in the permafrost, like some of the prehistoric mammals that have been found, how are they sure they are being accurate?

  2. Craig F

    The thing that really rules out Neanderthal as a Sasquatch for me is the difference in advanced tool making including making glue to attach ienly cafted spear heads and the use of fire. The results might look a lot different if you worked based on an ape model as Ron has suggested. To locate Sasquatch in the crowd of other versions of ourselves I like to look at reported tool use. I don’t see much tool making in reports, not much more than a sharpened stick. But the creatures in my opinion (often wrong) are not frozen in the past, they have developed in ways we don’t even understand, who needs advanced stone tools when you can do the wild things they are reportedly able to do.

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