Reconstructed face of 75,000-year-old Neanderthal woman revealed

FILE - The recreated head of Shanidar Z, made by the Kennis brothers for the Netflix documentary ‘Secrets of the Neanderthals’ based on 3D scans of the reconstructed skull.

Researchers have recreated the face of a 75,000-year-old female Neanderthal after her skull was discovered during a 2018 excavation. 

Archaeologists and conservators from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom found the skull, which researchers named Shanidar Z, in the Shanidar Cave, located in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

Dr. Lucía López-Polín, the lead conservator, actually pieced together over 200 bone fragments freehand to form Shanidar Z’s skull, according to a University of Cambridge news release. 


FILE - View of the entrance to Shanidar Cave.  (Graeme Barker)

"Each skull fragment is gently cleaned while glue and consolidant are re-added to stabilize the bone, which can be very soft, similar in consistency to a biscuit dunked in tea," said Dr Emma Pomeroy, a palaeo-anthropologist from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology. "It’s like a high stakes 3D jigsaw puzzle. A single block can take over a fortnight to process." 

After using surface scans and 3-D printing to form a basis for the entire head’s reconstruction, identical twins Adrie and Alfons Kennis, world-leading paleoartists, created Shanidar Z’s face.


FILE - The recreated head and reconstructed skull of Shanidar Z.  (BBC Studios/Jamie Simonds)

About Shanidar Z

Shanidar Z’s skull was crushed, according to researchers, possibly by rockfall. It was flattened to about two centimeters. 

Neanderthal skull found crushed

FILE - The skull of Shanidar Z, flattened by thousands of years of sediment and rock fall, in situ in Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan.  (Graeme Barker)

Excavation team members were also able to expose the remains of an articulated skeleton almost to the waist. 

Researchers were able to determine that Shanidar Z was an older female, possibly in her mid-forties, which was an impressive age considering the time. 

To determine her age and gender, researchers sequenced tooth enamel proteins. 

Also noteworthy were traces of microscopic charred food in the soil near where Shanidar Z was found. 

These pieces of charred food showed that Neanderthals actually cooked their food. 

"The body of Shanidar Z was within arm’s reach of living individuals cooking with fire and eating," said Pomeroy. 

Shanidar Z was one of at least 10 separate Neanderthal remains which were discovered in the cave, researchers said. 


FILE - The skull of Shanidar Z, which has been reconstructed in the lab at the University of Cambridge.  (BBC Studios/Jamie Simonds)

Neanderthals possibly buried their dead

While 10 sets of remains were found inside the Shanidar Cave, five of those remains were located among a cluster of bodies which appeared to be buried at a similar time and all in the same spot. 

The five remains were found behind a huge vertical rock that measured over two meters tall and sat at the center of the cave, researchers said. 

"Neanderthals have had a bad press ever since the first ones were found over 150 years ago," said Professor Graeme Barker from Cambridge’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, who leads the excavations at the cave. 

"Our discoveries show that the Shanidar Neanderthals may have been thinking about death and its aftermath in ways not so very different from their closest evolutionary cousins – ourselves." 

This story was reported from Los Angeles.