The calcite-encrusted face of a Neanderthal who lived around 150,000 years ago has come alive as researchers reconstructed a hyper-realistic model of his face and body.
The fossilized complete skeleton, known as the Altamura Man, is the most ancient Neanderthal from which portions of genetic material DNA have been extracted.
Discovered in 1993 in the karstic cave of Lamalunga, near the town of Altamura in Puglia, the skeleton has been shown in a life-size model complete with hair, beard and moustache.
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Featuring a short and stocky body, the Altamura Man had a jutting brow, an elongated cranium and a very big nose.
"To me he looks beautiful," David Caramelli, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Florence, told Discovery News.
The Altamura Man rested undisturbed in the cave until a group of speleologists spotted a 26-foot-deep well. Inside was a tunnel that opened into a large cavity, with other tunnels branching out from it. One of them, about 200 feet long, led to another cave, rich with stalagmites. There, encrusted in a corner, looking like a large piece of coral, was a skeleton lying on its back.
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Researchers assume the unfortunate hominid fell in a well and remained trapped there, dying of starvation or from lack of water intake. The skeleton was then covered with droplets of limestone that helped preserve it for millennia.
Last year, Caramelli, Giorgio Manzi, professor of paleoanthropology and human ecology at Rome's Sapienza University, and colleagues were able to extract DNA from the articular portion of the right scapula.
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The analysis confirmed the Altamura Man was a Neanderthal, the species that inhabited Europe between 200,000 and 40,000 years ago.
The researchers estimated the hominid lived approximately 150,000 years ago, in the late-Middle to early-Late Pleistocene - an ancient phase in the existence of Neanderthals.
To create the hyper-realistic model, Manzi and Caramelli used photogrammetry and laser scanning of the encrusted skeleton combined with data from the DNA analysis.
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The Altamura Man was then reconstructed by Dutch brothers and paleo-artists Alfons and Adrie Kennis, who also produced the hyper-realistic model of Ötzi the Iceman.
The model offered new insights into the skeleton. It emerged that while the body has the typical Neanderthal features, the skull is more peculiar.
"It shows archaic traits, making the Altamura Man a sort of morphological bridge between the previous human species such as Homo hedelbergensis and the Neanderthals," Manzi said.
Image: The skeleton incorporated into calcite concretions. Credit: Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and the hyper-realistic model. Credit: Laboratory of Palaeoanthropology of the University of Rome La Sapienza.