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30,000 year old Sungir Homo sapiens visualized for the first time in 3-D virtual reality

Visual Science and the RAS Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, with support from the All-Russian Science Festival "Nauka 0+", have reconstructed the faces of the Sungir people -- Homo sapiens who lived 30,000 years ago in Central Russia and are believed to be ancestors of today's Northern and Eastern Europeans. The new virtual reality 3D animation brings the Sungir people to life. Scientifically accurate visualization is based on skeletal remains from the Sungir site, one of the northernmost Paleolithic settlements in Europe, as well as data from previous efforts to reconstruct the Sungir people appearance.

30,000 year old Sungir Homo sapiens visualized for the first time in 3-D virtual reality
3D reconstruction of what a 10-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy who lived 30,000 years ago 
in present-day Sungir, Russia, could have looked like [Credit: Visual Science]
What is Sungir?

  • Located in the Vladimir region of central Russia, Sungir is by far the northernmost prehistoric settlement of early modern humans in Europe. It was first excavated by archaeologists in 1956.
  • More than 80,000 cultural and household artifacts have been found at the site, which is believed to have been a seasonal hunting camp. Many are made from mammoth bones, Arctic fox canines and stone. Beads, pendants, zoomorphic figurines, engravings and clothing have been among the findings.
  • Remains of nine people have been discovered at the site. The best-preserved belonged to two siblings, aged approximately 10 and 13. These were used to create the VR 3D animation.
  • Decades of research on the Sungir site have advanced our understanding of human development, migration, and the cultures of Paleolithic Europe.

To create the visualization, two Sungir skulls were laser-scanned and photographed in high definition. The data was then run through state-of-the-art 3D modeling software, where existing data and modern facial reconstruction techniques were applied. The VR animation outlines the steps involved, from marking reference points on the skulls to reconstructing the soft tissues of the head, nose and ears cartilages, to creating the final "living" 3D portrait.

30,000 year old Sungir Homo sapiens visualized for the first time in 3-D virtual reality
Images depicting the 3D facial reconstruction process that shows what a 10-year-old girl that lived 30,000 years ago 
in present-day Sungir, Russia, could have looked like [Credit: Visual Science]
The VR animation is based on contemporary research as well as earlier sculptural reconstructions of Sungir people made by Mikhail Gerasimov's method.

"In the mid-20th century, Soviet archaeologist and anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov created the first scientifically accurate method for anthropological facial reconstruction based on a person's skull. Previously, scientists noted that there is a dependency between the shape of the skull and the elements of appearance. The anatomical and radiographic research methods used by Gerasimov allowed scientists to not only determine standards for the thickness of soft tissues along the face profile line, but also to reveal patterns in the distribution of the soft tissues' thickness, depending on skull surface morphology development. The structure of particular facial elements was determined by individual morphological features of the skull. Gerasimov's successors developed techniques to restore the nose and ears. The degree of reconstruction authenticity was determined by a number of facial reconstruction projects that used the skulls of modern people, whose lifetime portraits were available. The methodology was tested mainly on forensic material. The Gerasimov method is still in use in Russia, Europe and the United States. In recent years, reconstruction has become easier due to the introduction of ultrasound scanning and computer tomography." -- Sergey Vasilyev, Head of the Department of Physical Anthropology at RAS Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology.

"As a scientist, I find this project extremely interesting. This is a meeting of multiple scientific disciplines - history, archaeology, cutting- edge computer technology. The result is a work of the highest order, which will find an audience both among the Festival attendees, who will be able to immerse themselves in the world of the Paleolithic, as well as among pedigreed scientists, who will find confirmation of hypotheses that had been put forward earlier" -- Viktor Sadovnichiy, rector of Moscow State University and the co-chairman of the All-Russian Science Festival "Nauka 0+".

Museums and schools around the world can access the visualization for free using Android apps compatible with Google Cardboard or any other VR headset at 4K resolution.

"Cutting-edge science combined with computer graphics is a powerful tool for promoting science among children and inspiring young people to learn about history and the natural world. The Sungir site is a global treasure. Special clothing and decorative elements suggest an amazingly high level of cultural development among Homo sapiens living 30,000 years ago. By visualizing these details with scientific rigor, we're able to share Sungir with the widest possible audience." -- Ivan Konstantinov, CEO of Visual Science.

"I like Sungir VR-animation because the reconstruction was made with high precision and attention to details. The physiognomy of the children, shown in the visualization, recalls Dolni Vestonice 15 -- remains found at upper paleolithic site in Czech Republic" -- Professor Jiri Svoboda, Sc.D., Head of Research Centre for Palaeolithics and Paleoanthropology at the Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Source: Visual Science [October 10, 2017]

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