Russia’s Sungir Burial: Faces of the First Humans in Europe Reconstructed After 30,000 Years

With the right virtual-reality headset, you could meet two very, very old children this week.

The children, a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old, are from the Sungir archeological dig in Russia. The site’s name is also sometimes spelled Sunghir, but regardless of how you spell the name, it’s considered an important place for human archeological history. The site is the farthest north that researchers have found early humans living. At least one adult was also buried there around 34,000 years ago.

Archaeologists have sequenced the DNA of the people at the Sungir site, and the results were just published in Science. Though some have suggested the children may have been related, newer findings suggest that they may not be close family. The children’s bones have also been analyzed.

And now we can see what the two children looked like. Visual Science, an international scientific visualization studio, and the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology collaborated on the project to bring these 34,000-year-old children into 2017 via virtual reality. To see them, you’ll have to have an Android phone and a virtual-reality headset. (The exhibitors suggest Google Cardboard, which costs about $15 per set.) Visual Science previously made award-winning models of the HIV and Ebola viruses.

Sunghir This is a reconstructed 3-D portrait of the 13-year-old child from Sungir. The site is the farthest north that researchers have found early humans living. VR animation by Visual Science

To come up with the children’s faces, researchers photographed their skulls and scanned them with lasers. They then fed the data into a 3-D modeling software program.

The reconstruction process was based on those done with low-tech methods, like the forensic sculpture approach developed by Mikhail Gerasimov in the 1930s. According to the exhibit’s website, they validated the results from Gerasimov’s work by repeating the process with skulls from modern people. When they were done with those, they compared their results to photographs of the people to make sure they’d reconstructed the person’s appearance well.

Of course, we can't know for sure what the Sungir children looked like. But virtual reconstructions like these are as close as we'll get in the absence of a very ancient selfie. 

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