More than 140 years ago, archaeologists discovered a skull in what is now the Czech Republic. It belonged to a man, they hypothesized, and it was roughly 31,000 years old.
But now, the authors of a new study, published in an online book called The Forensic Facial Approach to the Skull Mladeč 1, say the skull actually belonged to a woman, who was about 17 at her time of death. They say it is one of the oldest Homo sapien skulls found in Europe—and to approximate what she might have looked like, they have also created an impressive reconstruction of her face.
“When the skull was analyzed individually, the features pointed to a male,” Cicero Moraes, a Brazilian graphics expert and one of the study’s co-authors, tells Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki. “But when later studies compared the skull with others found at the site, the evidence pointed to a female.”
Josef Szombathy, an Austro-Hungarian archaeologist, first discovered the skull, now known as “Mladeč 1,” in the Czech village of Mladeč in 1881. Scientists also found other artifacts, bones and remains of teeth at the site.
In 2021, the Vienna Natural History Museum released an interactive 3-D scan of the skull. This was ultimately what inspired the study authors—Moraes, surveyor Jiří Šindelář, and Karel Drbal, deputy director of the Caves Administration of the Czech Republic—to create a facial reconstruction.
Reconstruction of human faces is nothing new: Earlier this month, a museum in Scotland revealed new images of three medieval Scottish people. Other examples of reconstruction efforts include Jane, who was eaten by fellow settlers at the Jamestown colony; Ava, a Bronze Age woman from the Scottish Highlands; and “Context 958,” an impoverished English man who died in the 1200s.
In Mladeč 1’s case, though, a few things set the reconstruction apart: Part of the skull’s jaw was missing, so the team used about 200 CT scans of other female skulls, both prehistoric and modern, to fill it in. The team then used “soft-tissue thickness markers” to determine the boundaries of the skin, Moraes tells Live Science.
The study authors ultimately created two sets of images. The first shows the woman in grayscale with closed eyes, which is the “more scientific and simple” approach, adds Moraes. The second set of images is “more subjective,” showing the woman in color with hair, eyebrows and open eyes.
Still, facial reconstruction is an evolving art. In the past, implicit bias has led scientists to create reconstructions that are misleading, and ongoing efforts to correct this are underway.