Science

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BBC
The reconstructed face of the first
European human.

Forensic Scientist Reconstructs Face of First European

May 07, 2009 07:58 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
An artist’s reconstruction reveals the face of one of the first modern humans to live in Europe about 35,000 years ago; the oldest known Homo sapiens fossils are about 200,000 years old.

Facial Reconstruction for Documentary Same as Used for Crime Solving

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Forensic scientist Richard Neave has had decades of experience recreating faces from fragments of skulls to help British authorities solve crimes. Often Neave is presented with a badly deformed or decomposed head, and from the skull he can recreate the facial features. In a 1996 murder mystery, a body was found that could not be identified. Neave reconstructed the face, and within days of the release of a photo of his reconstruction the victim was identified; in 1998 the killer was convicted.

But Neave’s most recent task was a little different—the face that needed reconstructing would not be identified by anyone, because it was tens of thousands of years old. This reconstruction is for a series that will air on BBC 2 called “The Incredible Human Journey” that will trace the ancestry of humans from their African origins through migrations around the world to modern-day man.

In 2002, a lower jawbone was discovered in a cave in the southwestern Carpathian Mountains in modern-day Romania. A year later additional pieces of the skull were found. Radiocarbon dating puts the age of the fossil somewhere around 35,000 years old, making it the oldest fossil of a modern human found in Europe. This discovery would mean that both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals inhabited Europe during this time.
Neave called upon his years of experience with forensic reconstruction and careful measurements of the bone fragments to determine how the soft tissues would have been constructed in this particular face. The skull was quite similar to a present-day skull, but the cranium was larger and it had larger molars.

Alice Roberts, the anthropologist presenting the upcoming documentary, has the face now sitting on her office desk. She says that it looks like a mixture of modern European, Asian, and African features. “I look at that face and think ‘Gosh, I’m looking at the face of somebody from 40,000 years ago’ and there’s something weirdly moving about that,” Roberts told the Radio Times.

Background: Oldest Homo sapiens fossils

Although the reconstructed face belongs to the oldest Homo sapiens fossil found in Europe, remains of much older Homo sapiens have been discovered.

In 1967 the fossilized remains of two early humans were discovered near Kibish, Ethiopia. At the time they were dated at 130,000 years old. In 2003 those fossils were thought to have lost the title of “oldest” to three fossil skulls found in Ethiopia’s Afar rift valley. The remains of two adult males and one child were dated at 160,000 years old, and were found among stone tools. The discovery of these ancient humans provided more evidence that humans evolved out of Africa, and not from different populations around the world, such as Neanderthals, who are now thought to have been a completely different species that died out.

However, recent studies of the Kibish site where the fossils were found in 1967 suggests that those fossils are in fact the oldest human bones found, now putting their age at 195,000 years old. Pushing back the date of the first humans has scientific significance in that it widens the gap between modern humans appearing in Africa, and modern humans appearing on other continents. It also widens the gap between humans reaching modern physical development and the appearance of modern behaviors (such as art, tools, etc.) that have only been found to appear 50,000 years ago. Of the remains found at that site there are bones from both a modern and a more primitive human, perhaps showing that the two lived at the same time.

Related Topic: The origin of humans in Africa and in Europe

A study last year of the DNA of 600 living Africans showed that it seems people came from one of two sets of human populations, thought to have been separated by drought about 150,000 years ago—a separation thought to have lasted up to 100,000 years. Another study suggested that the drought may have brought the human population to near extinction.

The oldest fossil of a human ancestor that has been discovered in Europe was found in northern Spain, and is thought to be more than 1 million years old. The fossils were part of a family called “hominins”—a pre-human species.
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