Meet Shanidar Z, a 75,000-year-old Neanderthal woman

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The woman, given the name Zanidar Z, was probably in her mid-forties - old age in prehistory CREDIT: PA

The head had been crushed relatively soon after death, possibly by a rockfall, and was compacted further by tens of thousands of years of sediment. When archaeologists found it, the skull was flattened to around two centimetres thick.

To recreate the head, the team of researchers first took micro-CT scans. Then lead conservator Dr Lucía López-Polín pieced together by hand over 200 bits of skull, including the upper and lower jaws, to rebuild it in its original shape.

The process was explained by Dr Emma Pomeroy, a paleo-anthropologist from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology: “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. It’s like a high stakes 3D jigsaw puzzle. A single block can take over a fortnight to process”. The rebuilt skull was surface scanned and 3D-printed, before the face was recreated by world-leading paleo-artists (and identical twins) Adrie and Alfons Kennis.

“The skulls of Neanderthals and humans look very different,” said Dr Emma Pomeroy, a paleo-anthropologist from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, who features in the new film. “Neanderthal skulls have huge brow ridges and lack chins, with a projecting midface that results in more prominent noses”. But this recreated face suggests that those differences were not so stark in real life.

In fact, it seems that Neanderthals looked similar to humans, which may explain how they were able to interbreed with us. Dr Pomeroy explained “It’s perhaps easier to see how interbreeding occurred between our species, to the extent that almost everyone alive in the world today still has Neanderthal DNA.”    

Identifying Shanidar’s sex

Working without the rest of the skeleton, particularly the pelvic bones, the team had to rely on sequencing tooth enamel proteins to determine the sex of Zanidar Z. Standing at around 145 cm (five feet) tall, and having some of the smallest adult arm bones ever found in the Neanderthal fossil record, her physique implies that she was a female and probably in her mid-forties – old age in prehistory.

Her teeth were also examined to assess her age through the levels of wear and tear. Some of the front teeth were worn down to the root.

Dr Pomeroy added: “As an older female, Shanidar Z would have been a repository of knowledge for her group, and here we are seventy-five thousand years later, learning from her still.”

The reconstruction work was done as part of a new Netflix documentary called ‘Secrets of the Neanderthals’, produced by BBC Studios Science Unit.

This article is based on a report by Sarah Knapton, Science Editor of The Daily Telegraph. May 2024.

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