Neanderthal woman's face brought to life in stunning reconstruction

At left, we see the reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman with a wide face and nose, big brows and dark long hair. At right, we see her reconstructed skull, which had been crushed and is now pieced together.
The recreated head of "Shanidar Z'' shows a Neanderthal woman who lived about 75,000 years ago. (Image credit: University of Cambridge; BBC Studios/Jamie Simonds)

A Neanderthal skull that was crushed to bits 75,000 years ago has been pieced back together and used to recreate the face of a wise-looking archaic woman with dark, flowing hair. 

Archaeologists painstakingly pieced together the skull of the individual, who researchers have named Shanidar Z, from hundreds of flattened bone fragments discovered inside Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2018. Her skull is believed to have been crushed shortly after her death, possibly by rockfall, and then compacted by tens of thousands of years of sediment. 

And now, with the help of surface scans and 3D-printing techniques, archaeologists have brought her synthetic face to life — muscle, skin and all. They detailed their efforts in a new documentary titled "Secrets of the Neanderthals," which launched on Netflix May 2. 

"The skulls of Neanderthals and humans look very different," Emma Pomeroy, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Cambridge who's featured in the documentary, said in a statement

Related: Weathered face of 'old man' Neanderthal comes to life in amazing new facial reconstruction

"Neanderthal skulls have huge brow ridges and lack chins, with a projecting midface that results in more prominent noses," she said. "But the recreated face suggests those differences were not so stark in life."

Neanderthals were the closest relatives of modern humans. They lived in Eurasia from around 400,000 years ago until they died out approximately 40,000 years ago. However, during that time, possibly as far back as 250,000 years ago, Neanderthals interbred with Homo sapiens who'd ventured out of Africa and into Eurasia. The genetic legacy of these interbreeding events still lives on today. 

"It's perhaps easier to see how interbreeding occurred between our species, to the extent that almost everyone alive today still has Neanderthal DNA," Pomeroy said. 

The flattened skull of "Shanidar Z" that was found inside the Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan.  (Image credit: Graeme Barker)

Shanidar Cave was originally made famous by archaeological discoveries back in the 1950s, which uncovered several Neanderthals who looked like they'd been buried there in succession. These findings suggested that this cave was a burial spot used by these archaic humans. 

So far, the remains of at least 10 Neanderthals have been excavated from the cave. However, archaeologists think Shanidar Z is potentially the best preserved of them all. Her remains — which include part of a skeleton nearly to her waist — were carefully exposed under 24.6 feet (7.5 meters) of soil and rock and removed for analysis in dozens of small, foil-wrapped blocks. 

Archaeologists couldn't find her pelvic bones, so they determined her sex by studying a protein in her teeth enamel. These analyses also shed light on her age, as revealed by progressive, age-related signs of wear and tear. The team thinks Shanidar Z may have been in her mid-40s and around 5 feet (1.5 m) tall. 

Emily Cooke
Staff Writer

Emily is a health news writer based in London, United Kingdom. She holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Durham University and a master's degree in clinical and therapeutic neuroscience from Oxford University. She has worked in science communication, medical writing and as a local news reporter while undertaking journalism training. In 2018, she was named one of MHP Communications' 30 journalists to watch under 30. (