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I’m back to internet land a bit earlier than expected and even though I’ve got several thousand unread items in my RSS reader, hundreds of emails and photos to sort through, I’ve stumbled upon some really interesting news first shared by Dienekes that I just had to pass on: A reconstruction of a Neandertal’s face using DNA and morphometrics.

Physical anthropologists often argue that the bones tell us how an organism looked like. Based off the morphology of the bones, we can estimate the structure of faces and bodies. Forensic anthropologists use this to help put a face to the remains of a decomposed murder victims. Paleoanthropologists have also used this technology to illustrate how human ancestors may have looked like. But we haven’t been able to strictly rely on morphometrics to illuminate the color of a person’s skin or hair. There’s just too much variation in skeletal morphology to make such correlations.

Advances in ancient DNA analysis like last year’s identification of a Neandertal carrying the allele for red hair, have helped us pinpoint more finer details in the phenotype of prehistoric human ancestors that can’t be resolved by measurements of bones alone. In a hodepodge synthesis of morphometerics and genetics, the National Geographic has analyzed the remains of 43,000 year old cannibalized Neandertals and created an image of what a Neandertal may have looked like.

Dubbed as Wilma, the NGS has created a documentary about the reconstruction process called the Neandertal Code, which airs Sunday, September 21st, 2008 at 9 p.m.

From what I can make of the anouncement, the reconstruction seems like more of an artistic endeavor than a scientific one. The skeleton was reconstructed based off of the bones of several female individuals, and when they didn’t have certain elements, male versions were scaled down. Also, it is uncertain what 43,000 year old specimens from this assembly of bones was used to figure out that this individual had red hair, fair skin and green-ish eyes. It is certainly possible that some elements came from darker Neandertals. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how ancient DNA is being used to complement the reconstruction phenotypes of human ancestors.

Related to this, is an open access analysis of Neandertal brain size and development that has popped up in yesterday’s issue of PNAS. Using the remains of 3 Neandertal toddlers from Mezmaiskaya Cave in Russia and  Dederiyeh Cave in Syria, the authors of the paper conclude that the Neandertals shared similar brain sizes at birth to Homo sapiens, but brain growth rates during early infancy were higher which resulted in larger adult brain sizes but not necessarily earlier completion of brain development. I’ll try to give this paper a more thorough treatment once I take care of the mound of backlog. But you should check it out since it is free, “Neanderthal brain size at birth provides insights into the evolution of human life history.”