We may never know why a Stone Age man's skull ended up on a stake in a mysterious underwater tomb 8,000 years ago, but thanks to a new facial reconstruction, we can see what it looked like before he died.
Archaeologists discovered the man's skull, as well as the remains of at least 10 other Stone Age adults and a baby, in 2012 at the bottom of what used to be a small lake in what is now Motala, a municipality in eastern-central Sweden. However, only one of the adults had a jaw; the rest lacked a jaw, and two of the skulls had been placed on stakes protruding from the lake's surface.
Now, a 3D facial reconstruction reveals the likeness of one of those jawless skulls. Oscar Nilsson, a Swedish-based forensic artist, used this skull, as well as the genetic and anatomical information gleaned from it, to create a bust of the man: an individual with blue eyes, brown hair, and pale skin in his 50s.
Related: the Stone Age man, whose skull was found in a spike, gets facial recreation (photos)
Nilsson did not want to damage the ancient skull, so he took a computed tomography (CT) scan of the sample and used that data to print a 3D vinyl plastic replica. From there, Nilsson determined the thickness of the man's facial muscles and skin based on forensic methods that focus on factors such as the man's weight, height, and ethnicity. For example, this man was from a group of hunters and gatherers whose genetic heritage included people who came to Scandinavia from the north and east, as well as from the south some 2,000 years earlier, Nilsson said.
"However, in this case, there was no jaw," Nilsson told Live Science in an email. "So the first thing they rebuilt was his jaw," which he did by taking measurements of the skull.
Almost all the adults in the grave had no jaws. But the Middle Stone Age, or Mesolithic, grave contained the jaws of wild animals, including those of brown bears, wild boars, deer, elk, and roe deer, according to a 2018 study on the site, published in the journal Antiquity.
This detail inspired Nilsson's choices for the man's wardrobe and haircut.
"It has the skin of a boar," said Nilsson. "We can see how the human skulls and jaws of animals were discovered that clearly posed a huge problem in their cultural and religious beliefs."
Also, the man has short hair in the reconstruction: "his hairdresser in his day must have used a sharp flint tool for this," Nilsson said, and the man has "a lock of hair on the back of his head, like that of a pig tail. "
This short hairstyle allows viewers to see a vicious wound – a 1-inch-long (2.5-centimeter) injury to the top of the man's head.
However, this head injury did not kill the man, at least not immediately. Archaeologists found that his head injury, as well as head injuries found in the other individuals at the water burial, showed signs of healing. In fact, Nilsson added scar tissue to the wound, said study co-director researcher Fredrik Hallgren, an archaeologist with the Cultural Heritage Foundation in Västerås, Sweden.
"Someone gave them love and care after this (trauma) and healed them back to life," Hallgren told Live Science when the 2018 study on the burial first came out.
Related: Stone Age skulls found on wooden stakes (photos)
Meanwhile, the white chalk decorating the man's chest is an artistic license piece, based on the fact that many indigenous groups today use chalk to paint the body, Nilsson said. "It is a reminder that we cannot understand its aesthetic taste, just observe it," he said. "We have no reason to believe that these people are less interested in their appearance and to express their individuality than we are today."
Like many of Nilsson's other creations, including an ancient Wari queen whose remains were found in Peru and an 18-year-old Greek woman from the Stone Age, this Mesolithic man seems thoughtful.
"You are clearly looking at something, like a guard or a hunter," said Nilsson. "Can you see us? If so, you would be as surprised as we are. Almost 8,000 years separate us, genetically we are very similar, but we must accept that there are great differences in the way we see the world."
The bust is now on display at the Charlottenborg manor house in Motala, Sweden.
Originally published in Live Science.