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Neanderthal Model Is First Replica of Extinct Human Species Based on DNA

Reconstruction by Kennis & Kennis/Photo by Joe McNally/NGS Meet Wilma, the first reconstruction of a Neanderthal created using evidence from fossil anatomy and ancient DNA. Neanderthals were a species of human that became extinct 28,000 years ago. The lifesize model was created to illustrate “The Last of the Neanderthals,” the cover article in the October...


Reconstruction by Kennis & Kennis/Photo by Joe McNally/NGS

Meet Wilma, the first reconstruction of a Neanderthal created using evidence from fossil anatomy and ancient DNA.

Neanderthals were a species of human that became extinct 28,000 years ago. The lifesize model was created to illustrate “The Last of the Neanderthals,” the cover article in the October 2008 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The article, written by Steve Hall and photographed by David Liittschwager and Joe McNally, explores what caused Neanderthals, who dominated Eurasia for more than 200,000 years, to vanish in the Ice Age, while our modern human ancestors survived.

Wilma’s skeleton was built using replicas of a pelvis and cranial anatomy from Neanderthal females combined with parts from a cast of a composite skeleton of a male from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Calculations were made to reduce the male bone sizes to female dimensions.

Paleo-artists and scientific consultants, overseen by National Geographic magazine’s senior science editor Jamie Shreeve, used evidence of ancient DNA preserved in cannibalized bones that suggested that at least some Neanderthals would have had red hair, pale skin and possibly freckles.

“For the first time, anthropologists can go beyond fossils and peer into the actual genes of an extinct species of human. This opens a whole new window on how Neanderthals lived and behaved, and indeed how we ourselves became human,” Shreeve said. “At National Geographic magazine we saw an opportunity to literally embody this new science in a full-sized Neanderthal female, reconstructed using the latest information from genetics, fossil evidence, and archeology.”

Initially the artists gave Wilma blue eyes, which seemed to be a reasonable choice if she had red hair. But when recent research suggested that blue eyes first showed up as a single mutation 18,000 years after Neanderthals’ extinction, it was decided to make her eyes hazel.

Neanderthal-2.jpgReconstruction by Kennis & Kennis/Photo by Joe McNally/NGS

Wilma is shown gripping a spear to signify that Neanderthal females and children may have hunted with males in order to satisfy their thick, muscular bodies’ relentless demand for calories, especially in higher latitudes and during colder interludes, National Geographic said in a press release.

She is depicted naked, as summers would have been warm, even during glacial periods, and Neanderthals probably would have gone unclothed in order to shed heat from their stocky bodies.

Paleo-artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis built the skeleton for the Neanderthal model using replicas of real bones.

“It is a fantastic piece of art,” Shreeve said. “We had several paleo-artists to choose from to  make the model. But based on their previous work, we suspected that Adrie and Alfons Kennis, twin brothers from the Netherlands, might  create a model with real character.  When they came for a visit to discuss the project, their tremendous enthusiasm and creative ideas won us over.

“The reconstruction — Wilma, if you will — is very true to science. But she also seems so alive — a grim, determined young woman facing hard times with resilience and enormous strength.”


Marina Allende, from a farm near El Sidron, a cave in northern Spain where Neanderthal fossils were found, demonstrates how a modern human woman compares with a Neanderthal woman.

Photo by Joe McNally/NGS

“People tend to think that Neanderthals were brutish and stupid,” Shreeve said. “Far from it. They had brains as large as ours, and through most of their  time on Earth used tools just as sophisticated as the ones made by modern human beings that lived at the same time.

“Yet when those modern humans moved into the Neanderthal’s territory some 40,000  years ago, our ancestors survived, and the Neanderthals faded away to extinction. Why? It’s one of the great mysteries in all of human 

Why was the model named Wilma?

“We were all kiting emails back and forth about the project referring to ‘the Neanderthal  female reconstruction,’ which let’s face it, takes a lot of keystrokes,” Shreeve said. “So we needed a nickname, and I came up with Wilma – – Fred’s wife on the Flintstones, of course. It was meant just for  internal use, but it just sort of spread.

“At first I was worried  about that — this is a serious scientific and artistic project, and  it seemed that using the name of a cartoon character was kind of  flippant. But hey, Wilma Flintstone was a strong-willed woman who didn’t take much guff from her husband, so she’s not totally inappropriate. Plus, she had red hair — an important feature of  Neanderthals we learned from the genetics.”

For more on Neanderthals, watch Neanderthal Code, airing on Sunday, September 21, on the National Geographic Channel. Video excerpts from the show above and below are courtesy NGC.


National Geographic‘s feature, photos, interactive and quiz about Neanderthals

Geopedia: Neanderthals

Jamie Shreeve: The Greatest Journey

National Geographic News stories:

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn