He died around 28,000 years ago and was buried in southern France, but now thanks to a modern reconstruction we can gaze upon the face of a Cro-Magnon man. And it turns out he likely had massive lumps and warts covering his visage, a result of a genetic disease.
The remains on which the reconstruction is based were discovered 150 years ago in a rock shelter in the south-western French hamlet of Les Eyzies, which was called Abri de Crô-Magnon. This gave rise to the name not only of the fossil itself, but then became synonymous with all European early modern humans, although nowadays most anthropologists do prefer to use the latter.
At the time it was found in 1868 the skull was the oldest Homo sapien remains found in anywhere in Europe, a record that has since been pushed back to around 43,000 years ago. The significance of Cro-Magnon 1 means that it has been incredibly well-studied over the preceding years, which has brought to light a number of curious marks on the surface of the skull.
A new study, published this week in the medical journal The Lancet, has re-examined these blemishes and concluded that they may well have been the result of benign tumors growing on his face.
The team took the skull and placed in it a CT scanner to get a three-dimensional view of the bone, allowing the researchers to examine it in exquisite detail. It turned out that previous explanations for the lesions – such as one in which it was suggested that the marking occurred after death – did not hold out.
Instead, it seems that the deformed bone occurred in life, and matched with the diagnosis that the ancient man had benign tumors growing on his face consistent with a genetic condition known as neurofibromatosis type 1. Today, the disease affects about 1 in every 3,000 people, and the symptoms tend to develop over a period of years, with the severity varying from person to person.
The examination of Cro-Magnon 1 suggests that he had a particularly large growth on his forehead, in addition to smaller tumors concentrated around the mouth and eyes. The facial reconstruction has been made to reflect this specific pathology.
A recent reconstruction of one of the earliest known Britons, based on recent genetic analysis, showed that the first modern humans in Europe may well have had darker skin than we are used to thinking. As always, though, it is impossible to be 100 percent certain, and so in reality we may never really know what these early ancestors truly looked like.