Neanderthal woman’s face revealed 75,000 years later

A team of palaeo-archaeologists is featured in a new documentary in which the experts have reconstructed the face of a Neanderthal woman who lived 75,000 years ago.

The skull, crushed into hundreds of fragments possibly by a rockfall after death, was excavated in 2018 at Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan. Named Shanidar Z, the Neanderthal’s remains are possibly the top part of a skeleton uncovered at the cave in 1960.

The cave is possibly a Neanderthal burial site.

View from inside a cave
A still from the film showing the view looking out from Shanidar cave. Secrets of the Neanderthals/Netflix.

More recently, research shows microscopic traces of charred food in the soil around a cluster of Neanderthal bodes in the cave. It includes carbonised bits of wild seeds, nuts and grasses. It suggests Neanderthals prepared and cooked food in the presence of their dead.

“The skulls of Neanderthals and humans look very different,” says Dr Emma Pomeroy, from the University of Cambridge, who features in the BBC Studios Science Unit production titled Secrets of the Neanderthals.

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

By taking micro-CT scans of blocks containing the bones, the team was able to extract the remains.

“Each skull fragment is gently cleaned while glue and consolidant are re-added to stabilise the bone, which can be very soft, similar in consistency to a biscuit dunked in tea,” Pomeroy explains. “It’s like a high stakes 3D jigsaw puzzle. A single block can take over a fortnight to process.”

The rebuilt skull was scanned and 3D printed. This allowed palaeoartists (to reconstruct Shanidar Z’s face over the 3D-printed skull.

New analysis suggests she was an older (by Neanderthal standards) female, probably in her mid-40s. Her species emerged more than 400,000 years ago in Africa before spreading throughout Europe.

“Shanidar Cave was used first by Neanderthals and then by our own species, so it provides an ideal laboratory to tackle one of the biggest questions of human evolution,” says Cambridge professor Graeme Barker. “Why did Neanderthals disappear from the stage around the same time as Homo sapiens spread over regions where Neanderthals had lived successfully for almost half a million years?”

Neanderthals are believed to have died out about 40,000 years ago. The exact cause is unknown, but it is possible that they became extinct because of climatic changes, competition with or integration into Homo sapiens after modern humans colonised Europe, or some combination of factors.

Palaeontologist sitting next to neanderthal skull with cabinets full of skulls behind her
Dr Emma Pomeroy with the skull of Shanidar Z in the Henry Wellcome Building in Cambridge, home of the University’s Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies. BBC Studios/Jamie Simonds.

“As an older female, Shanidar Z would have been a repository of knowledge for her group, and here we are 75,000 years later, learning from her still,” Pomeroy says.  

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