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The face of a Neanderthal woman
National Geographic currently has a feature on Neanderthals, a human species that flourished from 175,000 – 27,000 years before present in mostly Europe and to some extent the Middle East. The feature centers on a fossil reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman. Many bony parts, including the skull, come from those of an actual Neanderthal female, and feminized versions of bone remains of a Neanderthal male were used to complete the skeleton. Muscles were added in accordance with the markings on the bones indicating points of attachment of muscles and the size of muscles. The pigmentation is the best guess of the reconstruction team. Genetic analyses have revealed that some Neanderthals had pale skin and red hair.
The face of the Neanderthal woman doesn’t look feminine (Fig 1) when she is contrasted with modern European women.
Fig 1. Pictures of the reconstruction of a Neanderthal female by Adrie and Alfons Kennis (the brothers are shown; see details in National Geographic). She had a face larger than that of modern human males. The Neanderthals were shorter than modern Europeans.
Fig 2 shows two examples of male Neanderthals reconstructed from fossils by a different team, showing that the Neanderthal woman is indeed feminine compared to Neanderthal men.
Fig 2. Two reconstructions of male Neanderthals by G. J. Sawyer and Viktor Deak. Taken from The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans; this book has lots of excellent fossil reconstructions that are worth a look.
Just as there is tremendous diversity among modern humans, Neanderthals had diverse looks also. Hence, there is a problem with forming a mental picture of how Neanderthals looked in general from a single fossil reconstruction, but one is limited by good fossil specimens and the availability of a team that is willing to undertake the painstaking task of reconstructing from bony remains how a flesh-and-blood version of the person would have looked like. Nevertheless, some average differences can be noted.
One difference between the Neanderthals and humans of today involves the amount of bone deposited in the face. The Neanderthals were much more robustly built. In comparison with the Neanderthal woman, the modern human female shown below (Fig 3) looks feminine and clearly female even though she is somewhat masculinized among women of her ethnic background. So we are looking at a drastic contrast showing how finer facial features can make faces look more feminine even though they are not feminine (among females) or more feminine.
Fig 3. Non-feminine human female (from Met Art), 30,000 years after the extinction of the Neanderthals .
I can’t judge how feminine the Neanderthal woman shown here was among her co-ethnics, but she could easily be more feminine within her ethnicity than the modern human woman shown is among her co-ethnics. A comparison of attractiveness would not be fair because the modern human is in a showered and clean state and with make-up, and the dates of birth are tens of thousands of years apart. Tens of thousands of years ago, Homo sapiens (the surviving human species) had more robust facial features, but the ones found in Europe around the time both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens co-existed in Europe had finer facial features than the Neanderthals (Fig 4).
Fig 4. A Cro-Magnon brother and sister pair painting in a cave in Spain, about 20,000 years ago. The image is taken from The Last Human.