Secrets of the Neanderthals – A Dive into The Ancient Species

the secrets of neanderthals

Executive Producer Gideon Bradshaw from the BBC Studios Science Unit shares how they created highly realistic Neanderthal reconstructions for this Netflix Original Documentary.

Neanderthals, an intriguing ancient human species, were larger, stronger, and better suited for cold climates than us. They thrived in Europe and Asia until about 40,000 years ago. Recent findings indicate they had many similarities to modern humans, despite their physical differences.

Exciting advancements in Neanderthal archaeology are happening now. Discoveries and advanced scientific methods are revealing more about their appearance, lifestyle, and environment in amazing detail. Many of these findings come from a recent excavation at Shanidar Cave, located in the isolated Zagros mountains of Kurdish North Iraq.

Secrets of the Neanderthals Bring Caves to Life

the secrets of neanderthals

For this original Netflix Documentary, we followed a team of archaeologists from the University of Cambridge as they partnered with Kurdish colleagues to revisit Shanidar Cave, famous for its excavation in the 1950s.

During our time there, we were fortunate to capture the moment the team unearthed Neanderthal fossils dating back around 70,000 years. Among the discoveries was a flattened skull, carefully extracted from deep within the trench.

The skull was transported to a lab in the UK where experts used advanced forensic techniques to piece it together and analyze it. This marked the first Neanderthal skeleton found in the region in almost 25 years, and the team named her ‘Shanidar Z.’

Bringing Discoveries to Screen

The team had the opportunity to examine the skeleton remains closely, using a virtual camera to explore details of how everyone lived and, in some cases, how they died. Based on these findings, they created dramatic reconstructions to transport the audience into the world of Neanderthals. Five actors were selected to portray our small clan, including two adult women, two males, and a child, loosely inspired by individuals found in the Shanidar cave. To transform them into Neanderthals, each actor underwent a process where they were encased in a mold, creating a cast.

Prosthetic artists led by Suzi Battersby at Red Girl then added prosthetics to the casts, enhancing features like enlarged noses and brows. However, these changes were kept subtle to allow the actors to express their humanity through facial expressions. A new technique was also utilized to further enhance their appearance.

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