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Reconstructed face of a Neanderthal reveals a 'softer side' of our relative

While artistic impressions of Neanderthals often show the face protruding forward with a broad nose, modern technology has revealed a “softer side” to the now-extinct species. 

Researchers reconstructed the face of a man who lived 56,000 years ago using skeletal remains found 115 years ago in France, revealing an old man with a long beard. 

Focus of the study 

A Brazilian graphics expert who co-authored the study used computed tomography (CT) scans of the ancient skull and compared them to human craniums in a database with similar measurements to fill in the blanks.

The fossil suggests the Neanderthal was suffering from severe periodontal disease, a gum infection found in mammals, which experts believe “could be one of the first documented cases of zoonotic infectious disease spillover.”

Handsome species

When asked if the Neanderthal man was “handsome,” co-author Cícero Moraes, a Brazilian graphics expert, said: “Curiously, this (Neanderthal) is the second approximation that the people ‘fall in love’ with, the first one being the ‘vampire’ of Celakovice.”

Neanderthals were a species that lived alongside humans tens of thousands of years ago and were very similar in appearance and size but were generally stockier and more muscular. This early relative of humans existed for around 100,000 years – much of that time alongside people and breeding with them – before going extinct around 40,00 years ago.

Classic Neanderthal traits 

The skull, found in La Chappelle-aux-Saints in 1908, features a nearly complete mandible and cranium. Experts argue it displayed “many ‘classic’ Neanderthal traits, including a large, continuous brow ridge; a broad nasal aperture; a long and egg-shaped foramen magnum; a relatively flat cranial base (vs. modern humans); small mastoid processes; a long and low cranium; and large orbits.” 

“The fossil is often referred to as an ‘old man’ because he was suffering from severe periodontal disease and joint degeneration or arthritis. The ability of this individual to survive such severe ailments indicates that he probably had help from others.”

Turning back time

This skull helped a team of international researchers turn back time to see what the Neanderthal man may have looked like before death. “We generated two images, one more objective with just the bust in sepia tone without hair and another more speculative [and] colorful with a beard and hair,” said Morales. 

“This image shows how Neanderthals were similar to us, but at the same time, they were different, with more obvious peculiarities such as the absence of a chin, for example. Even so, it is impossible not to look at the image and try to imagine what that individual’s life was like thousands of years ago.”

Neanderthal portrait

The old man’s reconstruction vastly differs from another Neanderthal portrait shared in 2021 of a man called Krijm. He lived and died up to 70,000 years ago and had a curious facial disfigurement. Krijn was a young man with a “fairly sturdy build” at the time of death. He had a conspicuous lump over his right eyebrow – the result of a small tumor. 

This particular tumor has never before been seen among Neanderthal remains and would likely have caused Krijn pain, swelling, headaches, and even seizures, scientists claim. 

But despite what would have been a painful growth from the tumor, Krijn was reconstructed with a cheery smile. During his lifetime, Krijn lived in Doggerland, an ancient land bridge connecting Britain with the rest of Europe more than 50,000 years ago.

More about Neanderthals

Neanderthals, a species of archaic humans, have fascinated scientists and historians alike. Living approximately 400,000 to 40,000 years ago, primarily in Eurasia, they were our closest extinct human relatives. Recent research has shed light on their unique characteristics, culture, and their relationship with modern humans.

Neanderthal physical characteristics

Stature and Strength

Neanderthals were robust, with stronger builds compared to modern humans. They stood about 5 feet 4 inches tall on average, with a stocky build adapted to cold climates. Their large noses were likely an evolutionary response to humidify and warm cold, dry air.

Skull and Brain Size

The skull of a Neanderthal was larger than that of modern humans, indicative of a bigger brain. However, this did not necessarily translate to greater intelligence but possibly to different cognitive functions or adaptations to harsh environments.

Cultural aspects

Tool Usage and Hunting

Neanderthals were skilled hunters and toolmakers. They used sophisticated stone tools, including spears, which were primarily used for hunting large animals. Their hunting prowess is evident from remains of animals like mammoths and woolly rhinoceros found near their habitation sites.

Art and Symbolism

Recent discoveries suggest that Neanderthals engaged in symbolic activities. Cave paintings in Spain, attributed to them, indicate a capacity for abstract thought and creativity. This challenges earlier beliefs that they were incapable of symbolic expression.

Neanderthal social structure

Family and Group Dynamics

Neanderthals lived in small groups, likely composed of family members. Analysis of their living sites suggests a social structure where members worked cooperatively, sharing food and caring for the injured and older members.

Burial Practices

Evidence of intentional burial suggests that Neanderthals had some concept of an afterlife or at least a respect for their dead. This practice highlights their emotional depth and cognitive complexity.

Interaction with modern humans

Interbreeding Evidence

Genetic studies have revealed that Neanderthals interbred with anatomically modern humans. Today, about 2% of the DNA in non-African populations can be traced back to Neanderthals, influencing traits ranging from immune response to hair texture.

Competition and Coexistence

The exact nature of the interaction between Neanderthals and modern humans is still debated. Some evidence points towards peaceful coexistence and interbreeding, while other findings suggest competition and conflict.

Neanderthal extinction

Theories and Causes

The extinction of Neanderthals remains a topic of intense debate. Factors like climate change, competition with modern humans, and a lower reproductive rate have been proposed as contributing factors. Their disappearance marks a significant event in human evolutionary history.

In summary, Neanderthals were complex beings with distinct physical characteristics, cultural practices, and social structures. Their interaction with modern humans and their eventual extinction continue to provide valuable insights into human evolution and our understanding of ancient civilizations.

As research progresses, our perception of these ancient relatives keeps evolving. Scientists are painting a more detailed and fascinating picture of their place in our shared history.

Image Credit: Cícero Moraes et al.

The reconstructed image of the Neanderthal is published on the website  eFossils.

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