With a beetle-browed stare, the red-haired, pale-skinned Neanderthal woman gazes from the October cover of National Geographic magazine across more than 40,000 years of history. Affectionately known as “Wilma,” the life-size, 5-foot-tall, heavily muscled model is the first ever reconstruction of a Neanderthal using evidence from fossil anatomy and ancient DNA preserved in cannibalized bones.
Wilma was commissioned by National Geographic to illustrate an article in the October 2008 issue, “Last of the Neanderthals,” which explores what caused these hominids who dominated Eurasia for more than 200,000 years to vanish in the Ice Age, while our modern human ancestors survived.
To construct her, paleo-artists gleaned clues from Neanderthal fossils and traces of DNA extracted from bones. Wilma’s skeleton was built using replicas of a pelvis and cranial anatomy from Neanderthal females combined with parts from a cast of a composite skeleton of a male from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Calculations were made to reduce the male bone sizes to female dimensions. To flesh her out, the artists and scientific consultants, overseen by National Geographic magazine’s senior science editor Jamie Shreeve, relied on genetic analysis providing evidence that at least some Neanderthals would have had red hair, pale skin and possibly freckles. Eye color was likely brown, although greenish-brown may also have occurred. Scientists have also found a version of gene that may have contributed to speech and language ability, acting not only on the brain but also on the nerves that control facial muscles.
Wilma is depicted naked, as summers would have been warm, even during glacial periods, and Neanderthals probably would have gone unclothed in order to shed heat from their stocky bodies. She is, however, adorned with several stripes of body art, as some scientists believe lumps of black pigments found at Neanderthal sites would have been used for body decoration — a behavior once thought to be exclusive to modern humans.
In another shift from common wisdom, Wilma is shown gripping a spear to signify that Neanderthal females and children may have hunted with males in order to satisfy their thick, muscular bodies’ relentless demand for calories, especially in higher latitudes and during colder interludes. With all community members involved in the actual hunt for food, Neanderthal females and children lived more dangerous lives than modern humans, whose hunting-and-gathering model buffered pregnant females and small children from risk.
The October 2008 issue of National Geographic will be on newsstands on Tuesday, Sept. 30. The magazine is the official journal of the National Geographic Society, one of the world’s largest nonprofit educational and scientific organizations. Published in English and 31 local-language editions, the magazine has a global circulation of around 8 million.
NGM senior science editor Jamie Shreeve (author of “The Neanderthal Enigma,” 1995) is available for interviews, and photos of the Neanderthal model are available on request.