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Fossil image reveals clues about mankind’s ancient past


Scientists reconstruct face of early human

One of the mysteries of the world is figuring out what ancient people looked like and how society functioned. When ancient societies are portrayed, depending on the region and era, they all look different and mimic stories passed down from parent to parent, folk tales told around campfires, or from the research done and artifacts found by archeologists during their explorations.

The findings and data amassed over the years provide only a vague picture of what the people looked like back then, yet the soil that makes up present-day Egypt continues to shed light on human history in offering clues and evidence about human evolution.

Now Brazilian scientists have recreated the face of an Egyptian man who died about 35,000 years ago. He predates the first known pharaoh by 32 millennia. No one knows who this man was or what kind of society he lived in. The only archeological clue was an ax found beside him when his bones were uncovered more than 40 years ago at Nazlet Khater 2, an archeological site in Egypt’s Nile Valley. The remains are at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo.

Possibly oldest known Homo sapien

Details of his life are long lost to time, yet his death is one of the most consequential moments in archeology. He stood about 5 foot 3 inches tall and was estimated to be between 17 and 29 years old when he died. His skeleton–with a remarkably intact skull–made him the oldest known Homo sapien in North Africa…and possibly the oldest in the world. This man, in particular, had a skull structure that has provided the best evidence of how early Homo sapiens may have appeared. While his skull resembles our own, it also has some archaic features, such as a wide respiratory tract and alveolar prognathism (a protrusion of that portion of the maxilla where the teeth are located, in the dental lining of the upper jaw). That facial aspect is not present in modern-day Homo sapiens.

Fossils have been found all over the earth, some dating back to 300,000 years ago. Close to home, there is evidence that humans arrived in Southern California 130,000 years ago. In 1992, construction workers were digging up a freeway in San Diego when they came across a trove of ancient bones. Among them were the remains of dire wolves, camels, horses, and gophers. The most intriguing finds were those belonging to an adult mastodon.

With their interest piqued, the researchers went on to make an even more stunning assertion: The bones, they claim, also bear the marks of human activity. The team published their findings in the journal Nature in April 2017. The common theory was that humans first migrated to the North American continent about 15,000 years ago along a coastal route. Some theories posit the arrival of humans at 24,000 years ago.  The new study, however, suggests that some type of hominin species (early relatives from the genus Homo) was bashing up mastodon bones in Southern California tens of thousands of years earlier than the commonly accepted date.

Los Angeles Basin long, long ago

“I realize that 130,000 years is a really old date," said Thomas Demere, longtime principal  paleontologist at the San Diego Museum of Natural History and one of the authors of the study. “Of course, extraordinary claims like this require extraordinary evidence. Our discoveries at the Cerutti Mastodon site (in San Diego) provide just that.”

To put things into better perspective, if you were in proximity of the La Brea Tar Pits 130,000 years ago, you would likely be treading along in a vast wetlands area called La Cienega. It was a vast complex of ponds, meadows, pools, and marshes that stretched from Mid-City to South Los Angeles abounding with various forms of wildlife. Scientists have yet to discover any human bone fragments across town dating 130,000 years ago. Only about 1,228 acres of the ancient wetlands remain today (mostly Ballona Creek).

There are two different ways fossils can be dated, and that's through the process of radiometric dating or relative dating. Radiometric dating is a method for determining the age of an object containing organic material by using the properties of radiocarbon, a radioactive isotope of carbon. Relative dating is the method of determining the order of events from the fossil record.

The different ways scientists can do this is by studying the order in which fossils occur in the fossil record. Geologists can determine the order of events as they occurred but not when exactly they occurred. They also determine the age of the rock by understanding that rocks buried deeper into the ground are the oldest and rocks closer to the surface are the youngest.

High tech 3D imaging

Regardless of the technique used, the process of dating fossils are not 100% percent accurate, and most are just mild guesses and estimates. Science has not yet found a way to accurately determine the exact date and time period fossils come from, which of course can cause problems as some fossils do not accurately represent the time they come from.

Archeologists Moacir Elias Santos, and Cicero Moraes, a 3D designer, have used a new approach to determining the age of fossils using a practice called photogrammetry. At its core, photogrammetry creates 3D renderings from 2D images and uses “feature matching” (the more similar the two datasets, the better matching results) to capture an artifact, burial site, or (in this case) a skull from every angle. In piecing together detailed images of the skeleton, scientists created two composite images: One black-and-white image in a neutral state, and another in a more life-like rendering with facial hair and curly locks.

Photogrammetry is decades old and widely used by archeologists. Recent technological developments have made the technique more affordable, ubiquitous, and accurate. For instance, in 2021 scientists from the Face Lab at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom recreated the face of Ramses II, arguably Egypt’s most famous pharaoh, who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BCE and was on hand to witness Moses lead the Hebrews out of captivity.

“A few years ago, we were already working on a series of approximations related to human evolution, with the best-known fossil replicas,” Moacir Santos, an archaeologist at the Ciro Flamarion Cardoso Archaeology Museum in Ponta Grossa, Brazil, told CNN. “The videos were converted into photos and were used for the elaboration of the photogrammetry of the skull, which shaped the study.” Photogrammetry is the process of extracting 3D information from photographs.

"By using the skull of living people in addition to work carried out in the forensic field, the probability that the image resembles what nk2 looked like is significantly high," Moraes said in referring to the “reliability” of the image the scanner produced. Moraes emphasized that while the man's jaw is stronger than that of modern Homo sapiens, humans from 35,000 years ago are almost the same as humans of today.

A little known era of human history

The Brazilian scientists admit that their digital recreation is only an approximation. Because of the sheer age of the skeleton (dating back to the tail end of the Upper Paleolithic era 50,000 to 12,000 years ago), the facial facsimile not only puts a face to a little-known era of human history, but also helps scientists understand an important chapter in human evolution.

The Upper Paleolithic has the earliest known evidence of organized settlements, in the form of campsites, some with storage pits. Artistic work is said by archeologists to have blossomed during this period, with cave paintings, petroglyphs, carvings, and engravings on bone or ivory. The first evidence of human fishing is also found. This period coincides with the most common date assigned to the expansion of Homo sapiens from Africa throughout Asia and Eurasia, which, widely agreed among scientists, contributed to the extinction of the Neanderthals.

Prehistoric Egypt at this time saw Aterian tool-making. Commonly called the middle stone age, the stone tool industry centered in the Maghreb (North Africa including the Sahara Desert but largely excluding Egypt and Sudan). Scientists have also uncovered animal bones and hematite used for small arrowheads resembling those of Native Indians. The Nile Valley, where the skeleton was discovered, was an important dispersal route used by modern humans prior to the long cooling and dry trend beginning with the onset of MIS 4 (marine isotope stages, or the beginning of the archeological record).

Scientists will continue to dig into the past–both literally and figuratively–to learn more about how we came to be, what daily life was like tens of thousands of years ago, and what we can gather to better understand our brief yet fascinating role in earth’s history.

Merdies Hayes contributed this story.