A team of archaeologists and researchers, led by the University of Cambridge, has painstakingly reconstructed the face of a female Neanderthal who lived around 75,000 years ago and was buried in the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The story began in 2018 when the team excavated the remains of this Neanderthal woman from the Shanidar cave, a place where the Neanderthal species had repeatedly returned to lay their dead to rest. The cave had gained fame decades earlier, in the late 1950s, when archaeologist Ralph Solecki unearthed several Neanderthal remains that appeared to have been buried in succession.

The recent discovery, dubbed “Shanidar Z” is the first Neanderthal remains found in the cave in over 50 years and perhaps the best-preserved individual of the century. The team, which included researchers from the University of Cambridge and Liverpool John Moores University, took great care in exposing the remains, which included an articulated skeleton nearly to the waist, and used a consolidant similar to glue to reinforce the bones and surrounding sediment.

Back in the laboratory, the researchers employed cutting-edge technology, including micro-CT scans, to guide the extraction of the delicate bone fragments. The lead conservator, Dr. Lucía López-Polín, then painstakingly reassembled more than 200 pieces of the skull by hand, restoring the original shape of the upper and lower jaw.

The reconstructed skull was then scanned and 3D printed, forming the basis for a reconstructed head created by renowned paleoartists Adrie and Alfons Kennis. These identical twin brothers, leaders in their field, carefully built up layers of muscle and skin to reveal the face of this ancient Neanderthal woman.

The analysis of Shanidar Z suggests that she was an elderly female, perhaps around 40 years old – a remarkable age for someone living in prehistoric times. Without pelvic bones, the researchers relied on dental protein sequencing to determine her sex, and the degree of tooth wear to estimate her age.

Shanidar Z’s physical features, including her stature of around 1.5 meters and smaller arm bones compared to other Neanderthal fossils, also point to her being a woman. Interestingly, she was part of a group of at least 10 Neanderthals found in the cave, with five of them buried in a similar time and location, behind a large, two-meter-tall vertical rock that may have served as a landmark for the Neanderthals.

The discovery of Shanidar Z and the surrounding evidence has challenged the long-held perception of Neanderthals as primitive, ape-like creatures. The presence of flower pollen around one of the previously discovered bodies, as well as the care taken in the burial of Shanidar Z, suggests that Neanderthals had a much more sophisticated understanding of death and its aftermath than previously thought.

Professor Graeme Barker, from the University of Cambridge’s McDonald Institute of Archaeological Research, who leads the excavations at the Shanidar cave, believes the site represents an ideal “laboratory” for addressing one of the central questions of human evolution: Why did Neanderthals disappear around the same time that Homo sapiens began to spread into regions where Neanderthals had thrived for nearly half a million years?

The ongoing research at Shanidar, including the discovery of additional Neanderthal remains and evidence of their dietary habits, continues to shed light on the complex and nuanced lives of our evolutionary cousins.

As Emma Pomeroy, a paleoanthropologist from the University of Cambridge, eloquently stated, As an elderly woman, Shanidar Z would have been a repository of knowledge for her group, and here we are, 75,000 years later, learning from her.

The reconstruction of Shanidar Z’s face, brought to life through the skilled hands of the Kennis brothers, will appear in the Netflix documentary ‘Secrets of the Neanderthals’, produced by BBC Studios Science Unit.


University of Cambridge

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