Meet Shanidar Z, a Neanderthal Woman Who Walked the Earth 75,000 Years Ago

After carefully piecing her skull back together, archaeologists and paleoartists have created a lifelike 3D reconstruction of the woman’s face

Facial reconstruction of Neanderthal woman
Shanidar Z likely stood 5 feet tall and was around 40 years old when she died. BBC Studios / Jamie Simonds

In 2018, archaeologists unearthed the 75,000-year-old remains of a female Neanderthal from a cave in northern Iraq. Crushed by rocks and compacted by thousands of years of sediment, her skull was flattened to less than an inch thick. It lay in more than 200 pieces.

But over the last five years, researchers have painstakingly put the Neanderthal woman’s skull back together again, piece by piece. And, now, they’ve revealed a three-dimensional reconstruction of what the woman—named “Shanidar Z”—might have looked like.

The reconstruction is being released alongside “Secrets of the Neanderthals,” a new documentary produced by BBC Studios Science Unit that’s now available for streaming on Netflix.

Neanderthals disappeared roughly 40,000 years ago. But before they died out, some of them mated with early humans—which is why modern humans of non-African ancestry have between 1 and 4 percent Neanderthal DNA. The reconstruction of Shanidar Z makes it “perhaps easier to see how interbreeding occurred between our species,” says Emma Pomeroy, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Cambridge who helped discover Shanidar Z, in a statement.

“The skulls of Neanderthals and humans look very different,” she says. “Neanderthal skulls have huge brow ridges and lack chins, with a projecting midface that results in more prominent noses. But the recreated face suggests those differences were not so stark in life.”

Skull against black background
Researchers spent 9 months rebuilding the skull. BBC Studios / Jamie Simonds

Researchers discovered Shanidar Z’s remains in the Shanidar cave in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. They used a glue-like substance to help solidify the bones, as well as the sediment around them. Then, they wrapped small blocks of sediment and bone in foil and carefully extracted them. After transporting the blocks to the University of Cambridge, researchers took micro-CT scans of each one. Then, they began carefully removing the bone fragments from the sediment.

Lucía López-Polín, an archaeological conservator at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution, took on the task of piecing the skull back together. Working freehand, she spent nine months cleaning and stabilizing each piece, then slowly fitting them together like a “high stakes 3D jigsaw puzzle,” says Pomeroy in the statement.

Once it was complete, researchers surface-scanned the skull, then used a 3D printer to create a replica. From there, Dutch paleoartists Adrie and Alfons Kennis—who are identical twins—added muscle, skin, hair, eyes and facial features.

Their reconstruction makes Shanidar Z look so lifelike—and so human-like—that if she were alive and dressed in modern clothes, “you probably wouldn’t look twice,” Pomeroy tells CNN’s Katie Hunt.

In the meantime, researchers also analyzed the remains for clues about Shanidar Z’s identity. They used tooth enamel proteins and the size of her bones to determine her sex, and studied her teeth to determine her age—she was likely in her mid-40s, possibly even older. Her bones indicate she once stood roughly 5 feet tall.

“This is someone who had lived a relatively long life,” Pomeroy tells CNN. “For that society, they probably would have been quite important in terms of their knowledge, their life experience.”

Some of Shanidar Z’s front teeth were worn down to their roots, which suggests she was using them “like a third hand, to do things like processing hide,” Pomeroy tells NewScientist’s Alison George.

Shanidar Z is also offering insights into Neanderthal culture and behavior more broadly. At the time of her death, she appears to have been placed in a gully that had been first created by running water and then further dug out by hand. Her body was leaned up against the side of the gully, with her left hand curled under her head. A rock may also have been placed behind her head like a cushion.

She was found in a cluster of Neanderthal bodies that all appear to have been buried in the cave around the same time. Their remains were found behind a tall vertical rock, which likely fell from the ceiling before they were buried. Neandtherals may have used the rock as a landmark of sorts when they returned to the cave for different burials.

Many questions remain unanswered about the burial site—like whether ancient pollen came from flowers left by other Neanderthals or from burrowing bees. But the placement of the individuals near each other suggests “there’s absolutely no doubt that they maintained a tradition of, ‘This is where you put grandma,’" says Chris Hunt, an archaeologist at Liverpool John Moores University, to BBC News’ Jonathan Amos, Rebecca Morelle and Alison Francis.

One of the male Neanderthals found at the site appeared to have had a paralyzed arm; researchers also believe he may have been partially blind and suffered from hearing loss. Yet, he likely lived to be between 40 and 50 years old, which suggests someone was taking care of him. More broadly, this finding seems to indicate that Homo neanderthalensis was an empathetic species.

In addition, researchers found microscopic bits of charred food—including nuts, grasses and wild seeds—in the dirt near the bodies. The fact that Neanderthals may have been preparing and cooking food nearby suggests there “does not appear to be that clear separation between life and death,” Pomeroy says in the statement.

“Persistent use of places in both life and death is a significant Neanderthal trademark—it’s another aspect we share with these ancestors,” says Clive Gamble, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton who was not involved in the project, to NBC News’ Alexander Smith. “Many of what we think of as unique human traits originated long before we appeared.”

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