Neanderthal brought back to life

Published on 25 January 2019

Dr Christopher Rynn reconstructs the face of a Neanderthal man for a major new BBC series

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Dr Christopher Rynn is a lecturer in Human Identification and course coordinator for the MSc in Forensic Art and Facial Identification. He is an anatomist, craniofacial anthropologist and forensic artist with a specialism in the human face. 

His work often receives media attention and he has recently helped bring Neanderthals back to life for a major new BBC series. Chris performed a facial reconstruction using information from a Neanderthal skull found in Iraq. 

Clues from the facial bone structure of the Neanderthal, known as Ned, allow us to admire the face of one of our ancestors – one that hasn't been seen for more than 50,000 years.

The two-part series, Neanderthals: Meet Your Ancestors, aired on BBC2 in May 2018.

Dr Rynn said:

"I was working from a plastic cast of Ned’s skull, which tells a story in itself. Ned was in his 30s when he died, but the skull shows he had received a severe head injury when he was in his teens. The severity and location of the injury means he would likely have been blind and deaf on the left side, while the withered nature of the right side of his skeleton means he would have been quite severely disabled.

Despite this, he lived for another 20 years after his injury and was found with other members of his family. He would have been unable to care for himself so this provided the first evidence that Neanderthals looked after each other."

Neanderthals correct many myths about our much-maligned ancestors. According to recent scientific research, the Neanderthals are not the knuckle-dragging apemen of popular imagination and around 2% of most people’s DNA is of Neanderthal origin.

Chris has applied his academic skill and artistic talent to other historical and archaeological cases. Recent notable cases include: 

  • The Irish author Jonathan Swift, famous for Gulliver’s Travels, and his partner “Stella” Esther Johnson. 
  • Lilias Adie, the Fife “witch”, who in the 18th-century died in jail before she could be burned for her "crimes".
  • Ancient Egyptian teenage princess from the Harem of the Pharaoh of the Sun (Amenhotep III) in the Valley of the Kings.

Forensic Casework

Chris’s forensic casework includes facial identification of the deceased by conducting a facial reconstruction (estimating and depicting faces from unidentified skulls), producing post-mortem depiction from mortuary police photographs and craniofacial superimposition for confirmation of identity by comparing the skull to missing person photographs.

His work can also be used to help identify the living through artificial age progression, facial image comparison from CCTV or witness photography, and forensic image enhancement.

Chris has been involved with police training and delivered training in facial anatomy and facial image comparison for the counterterrorist unit of the London Metropolitan Police. He also facilitated the UK Police: Disaster Victim Identification course from Jan 2007 to Apr 2010.

Craniofacial Anthropology Research

Chris's work is grounded and reinforced by scientific research. He has collaborated with academics nationally and internationally, and even the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation, USA).

His research aims to improve the accuracy of facial estimation from the skull, through analysing the anatomical interrelationships between the skull and face. This research is extremely valuable to practitioners using facial approximation, reconstruction and depiction, for facilitating forensic human identification.

The science behind facial reconstruction utilises tested methods from a number of data sources such as; clinical imaging (CT, MRI), direct measurement of living faces, Thiel-embalmed cadaveric dissection, 3D surface scanning and standardised photography.

Chris’ doctoral research tested established methods of estimating the nose shape from the skull and subsequently derived a more accurate novel method based on a broad database of CT data of individuals of diverse ancestry and demographic. 

As a Postdoctoral Researcher, his part of the FastID project was designing and creating facial recognition software to process estimated faces and compare them to a passport photograph database. This will help expediting the identification process in mass disaster scenarios.

Chris supervises postgraduate students who are focusing on patterns of facial soft tissue depth and finding such depths are inappropriately grouped by sex, age, ancestry and nationality. However, patterns of facial soft tissue depth are actually based on directly measurable elements of skull shape such as dental occlusal type, brow ridge projection and possibly zygomatic (cheek) bone prominence.


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