Archaeologists discovered a human skull buried within a cave in 1881 in the hamlet of Mlade, which is today in the Czech Republic. The subject was identified as male at the time and the skull’s age was determined to be around 31,000 years ago.
But they were wrong about the Stone Age person’s sex, a new study finds.
Researchers have now addressed the mistake made more than 140 years ago, showing that the so-called Mladeč 1 skull actually belonged to a 17-year-old female who lived during the Aurignacian, a time period in the Upper Paleolithic (roughly 43,000 to 26,000 years ago). The team described how they categorized the sex of “one of the oldest Homo sapiens found in Europe” in a new online publication titled “The Forensic Facial Approach to the Skull Mladeč 1(opens in new tab)”.
“When the skull was analyzed individually, the features pointed to a male,” Cicero Moraes, a Brazilian graphics expert and one of the book’s co-authors, told Live Science in an email. “But when later studies compared the skull with others found at the site, the evidence pointed to a female.”
A digital approximation of what the Stone Age woman may have looked like. (Image credit: Cicero Moraes/Jiri Sindelar/Karel Drbal)
Moraes and co-authors Ji indelá, a surveyor with local surveying firm GEO-CZ, and Karel Drbal, deputy director of the Cave Administration of the Czech Republic, used CT (computer tomography) scans to create a digitized approximation of the skull using data from the 19th-century archaeological dig as well as forensic facial reconstructions carried out by researchers in the 1930s that were constrained by a lack of technology. Moraes used data on contemporary human jaws to assist fill in the gaps of what this person would have looked like because the mandible (lower jaw) was missing.
“We had to reconstruct the skull and for that we used statistical data of average and projections extracted from about 200 CT scans of modern humans and from archaeological excavations belonging to different population groups, including Europeans, Africans and Asians,” Moraes said. “[This] allowed us to project missing regions of the human face.”
Once they had a complete digital image of the skull, Moraes used “a series of soft-tissue thickness markers that were spread across it,” he said. “These markers, roughly speaking, tell the boundaries of the skin in some regions of the face. Although these markers come from statistical data extracted from living individuals, they do not cover the entire face and do not inform the size of the nose, mouth and eyes, for example.”
Researchers used a projection of lines corresponding to boundaries of soft tissue and bone structures to create the facial approximation. (Image credit: Cicero Moraes/Jiri Sindelar/Karel Drbal)
To help complement the data, researchers “imported CT scans of live subjects and deformed the bones and soft tissue from the CT scan to match the face being approximated,” he said. “In the case of the Mladeč 1 fossil, we deformed two CT scans, one of a man and one of a woman, and the two converged to a very similar result.”
Moraes produced two digital simulations of the person’s potential appearance for the book. But when it came to the person’s expression, he erred on the side of caution.
“We chose to generate the neutral face by tradition, as we are used to presenting works to specialists,” he said. “The trend will now be to present two approaches to the works, one more scientific and simple in greyscale, with eyes closed and without hair, and the other more subjective…where we generate a colored face with fur and hair.”
Archaeologists occasionally reclassify the sex of human remains, however this is not particularly often. Moraes cited the fossilized skeleton known as the “Zuzu(opens in new tab)” from Brazil as an illustration.
“That case was different; initially it was thought to be a woman, but later studies revealed [it] was actually a male,” he said.
In another instance, a Viking who was buried with weapons in Sweden was initially believed to be male but was later discovered to be female, according to a previous report from Live Science.
In addition to the skull, other items found at the Stone Age burial site during the original dig included stone artifacts, bone tips and several teeth. However, little else is known about the young woman who was buried there.