Neanderthals To Give Up Their Secrets On Netflix In New BBC Doco.

Photo courtesy of BBC Studios, Jamie Simonds. Human or nearly human? The reconstruction of the head of a Neanderthal woman.
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How neat would it be to meet one of our closest human relatives from 75,000 years ago person to person? Not possible, of course, but scientists have brought that experience a bit closer to reality by making a remarkably realistic reconstruction of what a Neanderthal woman would have looked like when she was alive, the BBC has announced.

It is based on the remains of a skull found in a cave whose bones were so soft when excavated they had the consistency of “a well-dunked biscuit” and were flattened like a pizza.

Researchers first had to strengthen the fragments before reassembling them and then it took expert palaeoartists more than a year to painstakingly create the 3D model.

The representation appears in a new BBC Studios documentary for Netflix called Secrets of the Neanderthals, which examines what we know about our long-lost evolutionary relatives, who mysteriously became extinct about 40,000 years ago.

The skull on which the model is based was found in Shanidar Cave in a remote part of  Iraqi Kurdistan. It is an iconic place where the remains of at least 10 Neanderthal men, women and children were unearthed in the 1950s.

When a British group was invited back by the Kurdish authorities in 2015, they soon chanced upon a new skeleton – dubbed Shanidar Z – that comprised much of the individual’s upper-body, including the spine, shoulders, arms and hands.

The skull was largely all present, too, but squashed into a 2cm (0.7in)-thick layer, probably by a rock that had fallen from the roof of the cave at some point in the distant past.

“The skull was as flat as a pizza, basically,” said Cambridge’s Prof Graeme Barker, who leads the new excavations at Shanidar.

“It’s a remarkable journey to go from that to what you see now. As an archaeologist, you can sometimes get blasé about what you’re doing. But every now and then you are brought up short by the fact you are touching the past. We forget just what an extraordinary thing it is.”

With permission of the local department of antiquities, the skull fragments were brought to the UK in blocks of sediment to begin the painstaking process of freeing them, stabilising them and then putting them back together.

The rebuilt skull was then surface-scanned and a 3D print given to Dutch artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis, who are renowned for their skill in creating anatomically faithful representations of ancient people from their bone and fossil remains.

But as intriguing as the sculpture is, with her rather contemplative expression, it is the original skeleton that holds the real value.

The team is pretty sure “she is a she”.

Pelvic bones would help the determination but those were not recovered with the upper-part of the body.
Instead the researchers have relied on certain dominant proteins found in the tooth enamel that are associated with female genetics. The slight stature of the skeleton also supports the interpretation.

How old? She probably died in her mid-40s, indicated again by her teeth which are worn down almost to the roots.

“By the time the teeth are getting this worn, chewing is not as effective as it would have been – so she’s not able to eat in quite the same way,” explained Dr Pomeroy.

“We’ve got some other indications of poor dental health – some infections, some gum disease as well. By this time, I think she was getting to the natural end of life.”

For a long time, scientists considered Neanderthals brutish and unsophisticated by comparison with our species.

But that view has been transformed since the discoveries at Shanidar.

The cave is famous for displaying what appears to be some kind of burial practice. Bodies were carefully placed in a gully next to a tall rock pillar. All the dead shared a similar orientation in how they were laid out.

Pollen throughout one skeleton led some to argue these Neanderthals might have been interred with flowers, suggestive perhaps of a spiritual awakening, even religion.

But the British team thinks it more likely the pollen was left by later burrowing bees, or perhaps from flowering branches that were placed on top of the bodies.

“Not because of the flowers on the branches but because the branches themselves could have prevented the likes of hyenas getting at the bodies,” said Prof Chris Hunt of Liverpool John Moores University.

Secrets of the Neanderthals will be available on the Netflix streaming platform worldwide starting today.

Source: BBC News, BBC Studios.
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