The Face of an 50,000 Years Old Neanderthal Reconstructed

In the quiet depths of a cave in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France, a group of Catholic priests stumbled upon the skeletal remains of what appeared to be an elderly individual in 1908. Almost complete except for a few missing teeth, this discovery earned the nickname “old man.” However, subsequent research by scientists revealed that this skeleton did not belong to a modern human (Homo sapiens) but rather to a Neanderthal that lived approximately 40,000 years ago.

The Distinctive Features of a Neanderthal

The Neanderthal skeleton exhibited distinctive features such as a prominent brow ridge, a flat cranial base, and broad eye sockets, characteristic of this extinct hominid species. Fast forward to October, where a groundbreaking facial reconstruction was presented by the Italian Ministry of Culture, providing us with a glimpse of how this elderly Neanderthal might have looked during the period 47,000 to 56,000 years ago.

Behind the Scenes of Facial Reconstruction

The meticulous process involved a forensic artist using computerized tomography scans of the skull. Measurements were then transferred along the Frankfort horizontal plane (a line from the bottom of the eye socket to the top of the ear opening) based on a human skull from a donor database, providing the framework for shaping the face.

Experts utilized markers for soft tissue thickness, obtained from living human donors, to digitally create the skin and muscles of the “old man.” Subsequently, details like color were added to the skin and hair to enhance the realism of the reconstruction. The source of these colors, whether derived from DNA analysis or a conscious estimation, remains undisclosed.

Cícero Moraes, a Brazilian graphic artist and co-author of the study, describes the result as two images: one objective and sepia-toned, portraying a bald bust, and the other more speculative, featuring a colorful, bearded, and hairy individual. These images not only demonstrate the similarities between Neanderthals and modern humans but also highlight distinctive features, such as the absence of a chin.

A New Perspective on an Ancient Face

While this isn’t the first attempt to reconstruct the face of a Neanderthal, the use of CT scan data for reconstruction marks a novel approach. Previous attempts, as noted by the Linda Hall Library in Kansas, included exaggerated depictions resembling apes, such as a 1909 drawing by Czech painter František Kupka and a hunchbacked skeleton created by French paleontologist Marcellin Boule.

The availability of digital measurements from CT scans has empowered the new research team, providing insights into the accuracy of their work and offering fresh information about our distant relatives.

Francesco Galassi, co-author and associate professor of physical anthropology at the University of Lodz in Poland, points out that over the years, reconstructions of Neanderthal facial features have undergone a transformation. The once harsh perceptions or interpretations, characterized by a more brutal depiction, have evolved to humanize these ancient beings.

Beyond the Face: Understanding Neanderthal Culture

Recent research has uncovered aspects of Neanderthal life, revealing their ability to bury their dead, create tools, use fire for cooking, and possibly engage in ritualistic practices. This shift in perception can be attributed to numerous advancements in understanding Neanderthal anatomy and physiology, showcasing their proximity to modern Homo sapiens.

Our reconstruction provides a fresh perspective on this ancient individual, reflecting the evolving concept of Neanderthals and their place in the human story.

Source: Live Science. 7 November 2023.

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