Integrating Ancient DNA In A Reconstruction Of A 43,000 Year Old Neandertal

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.”

11 thoughts on “Integrating Ancient DNA In A Reconstruction Of A 43,000 Year Old Neandertal

  1. Well, if I was a Neanderthal female, I wouldn’t mind being her….she certainly looks and feels like she can take care of herself…..she would probably have her own cave and do her own hunting! She was an emancipated neanderthal in my opinion.

  2. No chubby cheeks? What about all that “Neandertals were cold adapted” stuff? (Although cannibalizing often indicates starvation.)

  3. Well, all the DNA they seem to have used here is just an unrelated finding that some Neanderthals apparently were redheads (though she looks more like blond). Not much: really just mediatic hype by NG.

    Also I find odd she has such a narrow jaw and such an apparently high forehead. Just make a search for “neanderthal skull” and you’ll see that they had narrow foreheads with prominent brow ridges, proportionally very large faces and, in most cases, wide nose cavities like those modernly found typically among Black Africans (though other nose types also appear now and then).

    Certainly I do not know how was her specific skull anyhow. But from the article I gather that they have no idea on how were other traits like hair type (why straight?), eyes (why the partial epicanthic fold?), that have certainly been imagined from their own fantasy.

    Calling this the first Neanderthal reconstruction based on DNA is pure nonsense.

  4. Luis,

    Thanks for the excellent comment. You hit some key points that I didn’t make either because I didn’t think about it or couldn’t articulate.

    While the National Geographic Society does fund some basic science research and fieldwork, I no longer consider them to be an academic institution but rather science entertainers. This reconstruction is a clear example of their decision to make something entertaining.


    As mentioned, it is not clear how many individuals were used to make model. Multiple individuals would affect the final outcome. And differences in age and sex, even antiquity and locality can affect the morphology represented.

    Furthermore, if multiple individuals were used, which they were, the people responsible for the reconstruction possibly picked and chose which definitive alleles responsible for skin, eye, and hair color phenotype. As you mentioned, other alleles, such as curly/straight hair and the shape of the upper eyelid are also genetically regulated and vary amongst people.

    That all said, reconstructions of human ancestors have in the past been subject to a bit more artistic freedom. In other words, we’ve assumed that Neandertals have been light skinned since they are found throughout Eurasia. But, we haven’t known for sure until recent advances in ancient DNA sequencing. We can now identify some more definitive traits without conjecture.

    Anyways, I appreciate the comment.


  5. I think nat geo has always been a ‘science entertainer’, just now the quality of relative science for entertainment is not worth-mentionable into an actual show.
    It does reaffirm that subtle schema we all have that we are not too far off from that, it is proven that we coexisted pre-neandertal ‘absorbtion’.

    Great read, I totally landed on this by complete whim.

  6. I am a senior editor at National Geographic magazine and was its art director for many years. Since the early days of the magazine, National Geographic has had several roles including funding science, funding education, and presenting information about the world to an audience. These roles can be confusing to folks on the outside because from the outside, the National Geographic Society appears monolithic. But it is a complex organization that includes grant giving entities, entities concerned with public education, and media and exhibit entities, and many more. The Society once had a peer-reviewed research journal where scientists reported on their work, but there is no such science publication at NGS today. National Geographic magazine does not see itself as a science magazine. It is a general interest magazine and we cover science among many things. But we don’t consider the magazine entertainment either. We take our articles seriously and do the best we can to present excellent journalism. And, as is well known, there is an emphasis on excellent visual journalism.

    In that context, the Neandertal article concept presented an opportunity to do something special. The thrust of the story was “what’s new?” So the thrust of the visuals became “what’s new?” as well. And what was new was genetic information that could have implications for appearance. This new genetic information combined with new skeletal information is what made us feel that a compelling visual could be produced by reconstructing a three-dimensional Neandertal. We also thought that modeling a woman would be a fresh approach.

    Is it the same sort of reconstruction a scientist would make? No. Was it based on good information and prepared in consultation with scientists? Yes.

    As I learned when I was Art Director, there are only a few artists in the world who are qualified to do such reconstructions. The Kennis brothers, based in the Netherlands, are two of them. Their work is well known from European museums.

    There is no question there is a lot of artistry in such reconstructions, but in my opinion, one should not be too critical of them. We may not know whether a Neandertal had straight or curly hair, but an artist does not have the luxury of leaving the model bald. Our goals are to make these reconstructions as accurate as possible and as attractive as possible. They are what they are, a best guess.

  7. Renditions like this are bound to have artistic biases of gender and ethnicity, to say the least. Also, one picture is not, definitely, representative of a whole population sample. There will always be ‘standard’ deviations.

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