Reconstruction of a 75,000-year-old Neanderthal woman’s face makes her look very friendly – ​​there’s a problem with that

From a flaky skull ‘as flat as a pizza’ found at the bottom of a cave in northern Iraq, the face of a 75,000-year-old Neanderthal woman named ‘Shanidar Z’ has been reconstructed. With her calm and thoughtful expression, Shanidar Z looks like a thoughtful, approachable and even friendly middle-aged woman. She is a far cry from the snarling, animalistic stereotype of the Neanderthal that first emerged in 1908 after the discovery of the ‘old man of La Chapelle’.

Based on the ancient man and the first relatively complete skeleton of its kind found, scientists made a series of assumptions about the character of the Neanderthal. They believed that Neanderthals had a low, receding forehead, a protruding midface, and a heavy forehead, representing a baseness and stupidity found in “lower races.” These assumptions were influenced by prevailing ideas about the scientific measurement of skulls and racial hierarchy – ideas that are now debunked as racist.

This reconstruction formed the basis for a better understanding of Neanderthals for decades and indicated how far modern humans had come. In contrast, this latest facial reconstruction, based on research at the University of Cambridge, invites us to empathize and see the Neanderthal story as part of a wider human history.

“I think she can help us get in touch with who they were,” said paleoarchaeologist Emma Pomeroy, member of the Cambridge team behind the study, speaking in a new Netflix documentary, Secrets of the Neanderthals. The documentary delves into the mysteries surrounding the Neanderthals and what their fossil record tells us about their lives and disappearance.

However, it was not paleoanthropologists who created Shanidar Z, but the renowned paleoartists Knowledge and Knowledge, who formed a modern human face with a recognizable sensibility and expressions. This push for historical facial reconstruction, which evokes emotional connection, is becoming increasingly common through 3D technologies and will become even more common with generative AI.

As a historian of emotion and the human face, I can tell you that there is more art than science at work here. It is indeed good art, but a questionable history.

Technologies such as DNA testing, 3D scanning and CT imaging help artists generate faces like Shanidar Z’s, creating a naturalistic and accessible way to look at people from the past. But we should not underestimate the importance of subjective and creative interpretation, and how it builds on and informs contemporary assumptions.

Faces are as much a product of culture and environment as skeletal structure, and Shanidar Z’s face is largely based on guesswork. It is true that, for example, we can infer from the shape of the bones and a heavy forehead that someone had a pronounced forehead or other facial structures. But there is no ‘scientific’ evidence about how that person’s facial muscles, nerves and fibers overlay the skeletal remains.

Kennis and Kennis themselves testified to this in a 2018 interview with the Guardian about their practice. “There are some things the skull cannot tell you,” Adrie Kennis admits. “You never know how much fat someone had around their eyes, or the thickness of their lips, or the exact position and shape of their nostrils.”

It is a hugely imaginative and creative work to invent skin color, forehead lines or half smile. All these characteristics suggest friendliness, accessibility and approachability – qualities that define modern emotional communication. “When we have to make a reconstruction,” Adrie Kennis explains, “we always want it to be a fascinating reconstruction, and not a boring, white doll that just came out of the shower.”

The overlay of skeletal remains with modern affect confirms the recent reinterpretation of Neanderthals as “just like us” rather than club-wielding criminals.

Only in the past twenty years has it been discovered that Neanderthals share modern human DNA, coinciding with the discovery of many similarities over differences. Think of funeral practices, care of the sick and love of art.

This reinterpretation of the Neanderthals is historically and politically interesting because it draws on contemporary ideas about race and identity. But also because it recasts the popular narrative of human evolution in a way that prioritizes human creativity and compassion over disruption and extinction.

The neglected history of the human face

It is creativity and imagination that determine the friendly facial expression that makes Shanidar Z sympathetic and recognizable.

We don’t know what types of facial expressions were used by or meaningful to Neanderthals. Whether or not Neanderthals had the vocal range or hearing of modern humans is a matter of debate and would have dramatically influenced facial social communication.

None of this information can be gleaned from a skull.

Facial surgeon Daniel Saleh told me about the cultural relevance of Shanidar Z: “as we get older, we get crescent-shaped folds [wrinkles] around the dimple – this changes the face – but there is no skeletal correlation with that.” Because facial expressions such as smiling have evolved with the need for social communication, Shanidar Z can be seen as an example of overlapping contemporary ideas about the interaction of soft tissue with the bones, rather than revealing any scientific method.

This matters because there is a long, problematic history of attributing emotion, intelligence, politeness, and value to some faces and not others. How we represent, imagine and understand the faces of people past and present is both a political and a social activity.

Historically, societies have made the faces of those they want to be connected to more emotionally empathetic. However, when cultures have identified certain groups that they do not want to associate with and in fact want to marginalize, we have seen grotesque and dehumanizing ideas and images emerge around them. Take, for example, anti-black caricatures from the Jim Crow era in the US or cartoons of Jewish people created by the Nazis.

By presenting this 75,000-year-old woman as a contemplative and gentle soul with whom we can identify, rather than as a snarling, angry (or blankly rendered) code, we say more about our need to reconsider the past than about any concrete fact. the emotional life of Neanderthals.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with artistically imagining the past, but we need to be clear about when that happens – and what it’s for. Otherwise we ignore the complex power and meanings of the face in history and in the present.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The conversation

The conversation

Fay Bound Alberti receives funding from a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship.

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