- For decades, scientists have put digital faces on the fossilized remains of ancient peoples, famous and unknown.
- A new study reconstructs the face of a 35,000-year-old man, whose remains were discovered in Egypt’s Nile Valley in 1980.
- This digital approximation revealed a surprisingly robust jawbone (compared to modern humans) and a detailed portrait of a unique era in human history.
About 35,000 years ago, a man of African descent died in what is now Egypt. Predating the first known pharaoh by 32 millennia, no one knows who this man was or what kind of society he lived in. The only archaeological clue was the ax found next to him when his bones were discovered more than four decades ago at Nazlet Khater 2, an archaeological site in Egypt’s Nile Valley.
Although the details of his life are lost to time, his death is one of the most important moments in archaeology. That’s because the man, who was 5ft 3in tall and between 17 and 29 years old, is the oldest known A wise man skeleton in Egypt, and one of the oldest in the world. And, above all, his skull is remarkably intact.
Now, 43 years after his initial discovery, Brazilian scientists have used a process known as photogrammetry to digitally recreate what this ancient man might have looked like. Their prepublication study has been published (in Portuguese) at the end of March.
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“The skeleton has most of the bones preserved, although there were some losses,” said co-author and archaeologist Moacir Elias Santos. Live Science. “But the main structure for the facial approximation, the skull, has been well preserved.”
By stitching together detailed images of the skeleton, the scientists created two composite images: a black-and-white image in a neutral state and another in a more realistic rendering with facial hair and curly locks. The researchers found that the skull itself had a mostly modern structure, although the jawbone was much sturdier than what is typically found in modern skulls. A wise mana possible genetic remnant of our Great Ape ancestors.
The practice of photogrammetry in archeology is decades old, but recent technological developments have made the technique more affordable, ubiquitous, and accurate. In its most basic form, photogrammetry creates 3D renderings of 2D images and uses feature matching to capture an artifact, burial site, or (in this case) skull from all angles.
In recent years, scientists have returned numerous digital recreations derived from human fossils. In 2016, the University of Glasgow recreated legendary Scottish king Robert the Bruce using a cast of the original skull and demographic statistics to fill in the blanks (a 14th century Scottish king probably had red hair and brown eyes, for example.)
Other studies have also digitally recreated famous faces found in the same region as this 35,000-year-old specimen. In 2021, scientists from the Face Lab at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK recreated the face of Ramesses II, arguably the most famous pharaoh of ancient Egypt, who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BCE. Using a collection of CT scan data, Ramses II, who died around the age of 90, was even aged to around 45 years old.
Brazilian scientists admit their digital recreation is only an approximation, but due to the skeleton’s age (dating back to the late Paleolithic era), this facial facsimile not only puts a face to an era little known in human history, but also helps scientists understand an important chapter in human evolution.
Darren lives in Portland, has a cat, and writes/edits about science fiction and how our world works. You can find his previous stuff at Gizmodo and Paste if you look hard enough.