Russia's Sungir Burial: Faces of the First Humans in Europe Reconstructed After 30,000 Years

Kate Sheridan

With the right virtual reality headset, you could meet two very, very old children this week.

The two children, a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old, are from the Sungir archeological dig in Russia. The site’s name is also sometimes spelled Sunghir, but regardless of how you spell the name, it’s considered an important place for human archeological history. The site is the furthest north that researchers have found early humans living. At least one adult was also buried at the site around 34,000 years ago.

Archaeologists have sequenced the DNA of the people at the Sunghir site and the results were just published in Science. Though some have suggested the children may have been related, newer findings suggest that they may not be close family. The children’s bones have also been analyzed.

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And now we can see what the two children looked like. The RAS Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology and Visual Science, an international scientific visualization studio, collaborated on a visualization project to bring these 34,000-year-old children into 2017 via virtual reality. To see them, you’ll have to have an Android phone and a virtual reality headset. (The exhibitors suggest Google Cardboard, which costs about $15 per set.) Visual Science previously made award-winning models of the HIV and Ebola viruses.

Sunghir

This is a reconstructed 3-D portrait of the 13 y.o. child from Sungir. VR animation by Visual Science

To come up with the children’s faces, researchers photographed their skulls and scanned them with lasers. They then fed the data into a 3-D modeling software program.

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The reconstruction process was based on reconstructions done with low-tech methods, like the forensic sculpture method developed by Mikhail Gerasimov in the 1930s. According to the exhibit’s website, they validated the results from Gerasimov’s method by repeating the process with skulls from modern people. When they were done with those, they compared their results to photographs of the people to make sure they’d reconstructed the person’s appearance well.

Of course we can't know for sure what the Sungir children looked like. But reconstructions like this are as close as we'll get in the absence of a very ancient selfie. 

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