Isabelle De Groote, UGent

UGent to reconstruct head of woman, who lived 15,000 years ago

A team at Ghent University are to reconstruct the head of a prehistoric human for the first time.  The scientists have taken a woman, who lived 15,000 years ago, as their subject. A skull found with sixty other skeletons in a cave in the Valley of the River Meuse in Wallonia will form the basis of the research.

The woman’s bones and skull arrived at Ghent University yesterday.  A CT scan is being taken that will allow the creation of a plastic copy that will be used in the construction.

The project is being headed by Prof Isabelle De Groote, an expert in anthropology, Prof Philippe Crombé, an archaeologist, Maarten Dhaenens, a Proteomic expert and Marta Costas Rodriguez, an isotope expert.  Two famous paleo-artists, who were also involved in the reconstruction of Ötzi Man, Alfons and Adrie Kennis, are also being involved.

Isabelle De Groote, UGent

Their aim is, based on scientific knowledge, to create a reconstruction of a woman’s head that is as true to life as possible, though there is always some room for artistic interpretation.

Using the plastic skull created with a CT scan on the actual skull the Kennis brothers will set to work.  “Using clay, they will attach copies of the muscles and will use the skull to reconstruct the individual as true to life as possible” says Prof De Groote.

The artistic licence that can be used in the process is smaller than most people anticipate.

“The build of a face is pretty standard.  We know how much muscle tissue there is.  It only varies slightly from person to person”.

To know how much fat there is on the bone scientists will consider the type of life led by hunter-gatherers. 

“We can deduce what their diet would be and how active they were.  If they were pretty active, you don’t expect anybody to be overweight but rather muscular”.

DNA research should help to determine whether the reconstructed head gets fair or dark hair, blue or brown eyes. 

“We will remove DNA from the skull” says De Groote.  “We remove part of the bone, grind it up and hope to collect sufficient DNA to get answers.  The artists will recreate the woman’s skin, her eyes and hair.”

The last hunter-gatherers were found in our tracts between 15,000 and 7,500 years ago.  Belgium boasts numerous finds from this period that are usually well-preserved. 

“We’re very lucky in Belgium” says De Groote.  “Nobody in neighbouring countries can match the richness of our finds from this period. Sites are numerous in the valleys and caves of Wallonia. DNA has been fantastically preserved.  We have high hopes the skull will yield good DNA, but failure is always a possibility”. 

Isabelle De Groote, UGent

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