29 Reconstructed Faces Of Ancient People From The Neanderthals To Jesus

Published July 10, 2019
Updated March 29, 2020

Scientists and artists worked together to create these reconstructed faces of ancient humans — and the results are astonishing.

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29 Reconstructed Faces Of Ancient People From The Neanderthals To Jesus
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Our ability to reconstruct the likenesses of long-dead humans has made immeasurable progress in recent decades. With detailed computer programs, DNA studies, and advanced technologies like 3D printing — the margin of error in scientifically reconstructed faces is shrinking. The result is stunning lifelike portraits of ancient people who left this Earth thousands upon thousands of years ago.

Facial reconstruction is a delicate mix of science and art. As such, the pendulum can swing too much one way and affect the end result. Too much science and faces can be sterile and unmoving. Let artistic license take over, and reconstructions can be scientifically inaccurate.

So how do experts create these reconstructions and what do they expect to find from them?

The Art Of Reconstructed Faces

Scientists and artists often use a 3D-printed skull they gleaned from either fragments of ancient humans or if they're lucky an entire skull. They then take every detail into consideration; radiocarbon dating, dental plaque, and DNA analysis to determine the color of the subject's eyes, skin, and hair.

Some digital portraits are done using only a computer. Others are rendered in three dimensions by artists using clay and similar materials alongside this research. These artists use precise measurements and their knowledge of facial muscles to build an accurate model.

The following video gives a fascinating overview of how forensic artists begin the task of reconstructing faces.

Sometimes an exact replica of a skull is used when the original needs to be kept. This involves lots of photos, digital rendering, and 3D printing or casting. Specialized forensic artists use all these same measures on contemporary skulls as well to help identify murder victims.

Hundreds of hours can go into one reconstruction. This begs the question — are they worth doing? In the case of a murder investigation, reconstructions are sometimes last-ditch efforts when there is no DNA, dental records, or photographs. However, when the identity is truly unknown, putting a face on a victim can be the difference between a cold case and a closed one.

But what about ancient people? How does it help us to learn about their physical appearance?

Bringing History — And Ancient People — To Life

Humans are highly visual creatures. Some of us have to see something before we can believe it. In this sense, observing the face of someone that's been reconstructed from a lump of bone can help us to visualize — and therefore understand — our evolutionary history more clearly.

On top of this, it's just really, really interesting.

For instance, meet Dawn, a teenager from the Mesolithic period — around 7,000 B.C. — who was so named for being born around the dawn of civilization.

Scientists in Greece reconstruct the faces of 9,000-year-old women using 3D printing and some truly on-point sleuthing.

Obviously, there are important facts to be gleaned from studying the bones of our ancestors. We can know if they died from a certain illness, like Nebiri the Egyptian dignitary who is the oldest documented case of heart failure.

We can learn about what kind of work they did. We can determine what their diet was and if they were native to the area in which their bones were located.

These are all great discoveries. But the difference between seeing bones and seeing facial expressions; that's the difference between humanoid and humanity.

How Accurate Are Facial Reconstructions?

We can make the argument that the accuracy of reconstructing faces is at an all-time high, however, there will likely never be a way to make these facial reconstructions 100 percent accurate. As of today, there is no standardized way of creating them. No two forensic artists will come up with exactly the same reconstruction from the same information.

Using skulls as a basis, scientists can determine the placement of the eyes, the nose protrusion, mouth size, browbone, and jawline. Muscles are a bit harder, but we know where they are and how they behave under the skin. When DNA is present, that helps immensely with coloring and skin tone.

Tissue markers are used to show how thin or thick the skin should be. Scientists compile these measurements from CT scans of living people from different ethnicities. Forensic artists use these numbers to make approximations.

Even with the many tactics used, there are physical anomalies that can't be derived from a skull, for instance, expressions, scars, facial hair, and tattoos. These are things that truly distinguish us from one another in unique ways.

On the subject of tattoos, scientists recently worked to reconstruct the face of this woman: a 1,600-year-old tattooed mummy.

The Future Of Facial Reconstruction

With how far we've come already, it's difficult to imagine many more improvements being implemented in this field. There are a couple of things, however, that can swing the pendulum of facial reconstruction to be closer to the side of hard science.

As with most everything, the more we practice, the more we learn. Facial reconstruction is still a fairly new science. Time itself will reveal new biological markers. Even more advanced software will become available. But for now, the lack of a standardized model creates a variety of results for the same data inputs. Figuring out how to tighten up the process and allow less creative interpretation in certain situations could change everything.

Right now, using reconstructed faces as hard evidence in court cases is not allowed. If we can start replicating faces with even greater accuracy, someday it could be. Whether this is a good or bad thing is certainly up for debate and calls upon the great ethics statement, "Just because we can, doesn't mean we should."

But for now, we can create an image into the past and it is helping us to better understand our evolutionary history.

After this look at some truly impressive reconstructed faces of ancient people, read about this 9,500-year-old skull and what we've learned from it. Then, find out why archaeologists have found puppies in ancient Chinese tombs.

Erin Kelly
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
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Kelly, Erin. "29 Reconstructed Faces Of Ancient People From The Neanderthals To Jesus." AllThatsInteresting.com, July 10, 2019, https://allthatsinteresting.com/reconstructed-faces-of-ancient-people. Accessed June 12, 2024.