Scientists Show How They Gave A 70,000-Year-Old Neanderthal His Smile

Scientists have reconstructed a Neanderthal mans's face, starting with a 70,000-year-old fossil fragment from the ancient human ancestor's skull. They even gave him a toothy smile and a name.

A 3.9- inch-by-2.3 inch skull fragment of the first Neanderthal ever found in the Netherlands — a piece roughly the size of a deck of playing cards — was presented to the National Museum of Antiquities in the Dutch town of Leiden in 2009. An amateur paleontologist found it on the North Sea coast of Holland after a bottom-dredger dug it up along with seashells and debris, the museum said on its Dutch-language website.

The skull fragment came from a young man of sturdy build who ate primarily meat, according to researchers from Leiden University, located between Amsterdam and The Hague, and the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. They were also able to determine he had a benign tumor that created a lump over his right eyebrow.

Neanderthal smile
The reconstructed face of Neanderthal named Krijn as interpreted by palaeo-artists, It is on display in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, the Netherlands, through next month. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, the Netherlands/Zenger

Krijn, as researchers named the Neanderthal, is believed to have been an inhabitant of Doggerland, a prehistoric landbridge that connected England with continental Europe. It's now submerged off the Dutch coast. As a result of its watery fate, Doggerland is sometimes called the Atlantis of the North Sea.

Sea levels during Krijn's lifetime were roughly 164 feet lower than today, making Doggerland a cold plain that he would have shared with mammoths, reindeer and woolly rhinoceroses.

Alfons and Adrie Kennis, a pair of "paleo artists" who specialize in facial reconstructions of ancient human remains, recreated Krijn's face in detail. In video footage, Adrie Kennis said Neanderthals had flat foreheads with prominent eyebrow ridges, protruding mid-faces and large noses and nostrils.

Kennis did not explain why they chose to give Krijn a smile, which puts his teeth prominently on display.

Neanderthal face
One of the phases in the construction of the face of the Neanderthal named Krijn. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, the Netherlands/Zenger

The Kennises used a previously reconstructed French Neanderthal skull as their starting point, using the existing fragment and digital scans of other Neanderthal skull fragments to get an idea of what Krijn would have looked like.

For all his similarities to others of his era, Krijn is the only Neanderthal found with a tumor or bruise on his brow.

The fossil and its smiley reconstruction will be on display until Oct. 31 as part of the "Doggerland" exhibit in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden. The exhibition tells the story "of almost one million years of human habitation of this rich, vast prehistoric landscape," according to the museum's website.

Fossilized orbital bone, Neanderthal
This fossilized orbital bone, found 20 years ago by an amateur paleontologist on the North Sea floor off the Dutch coast, was the starting point for a recently completed reconstruction of a Neanderthal’s head. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, the Netherlands/Zenger

Neanderthals were found not just in Doggerland, but all across Europe, and in southwest and central Asia. The extinct species was named for the Neander Valley in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

"We know more facts about Neanderthals than any other extinct humans," human evolution expert professor Chris Stringer wrote on the website of London's National History Museum. "Many thousands of their artifacts and fossils have been found, including several nearly complete skeletons."

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.