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Hollywood star Andy Serkis creates scientifically accurate Neanderthal avatar

Global movie star and master of performance capture, Andy Serkis, best known as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Caesar in Planet of the Apes has worked with leading scientists to create a striking scientifically accurate, 3D animated avatar of a real Neanderthal for a new BBC Two series.

The Natural History Museum’s world-renowned Human Evolution expert Professor Chris Stringer was the Science Consultant and an on-screen contributor to the series. He collaborated with Serkis and leading scientists from around the world to recreate one of our closest relatives.

Professor Stringer says: “I never thought it would be possible to bring a Neanderthal to life with so much scientific accuracy. It was a delight to see Andy Serkis conjure him with such skill – giving this authentic visualisation a personality through expression and movement that immediately conveys just how close to Neanderthals we are.”

The series is presented by Ella Al-Shamahi, a National Geographic Explorer and paleoanthropologist.  Formerly a student at the Natural History Museum and now at University College London, Ella couples her cave excavations in hostile territories with an unusual side-line as a stand-up comic. In Neanderthals: Meet Your Ancestors, she explores the recent scientific breakthroughs that have busted almost every brutish stereotype we have held about these archaic humans.  Key amongst them: the decoding of the Neanderthal genome, which revealed that most people living today have inherited Neanderthal DNA.

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Inside Serkis's Imaginarium studio

 

The CGI Neanderthal is based on a skull found in Shanidar Cave in Iraq that Ella names ‘Ned.’ With the help of a forensic expert working on the remaining bone structure, the series reconstructs Ned’s face both as a fit and healthy young man, and as he would have looked at the time of his death -  which was very different. When Ned died, it was after surviving more than twenty years following a major injury which fractured his skull, injured his brain and most likely blinded him in one eye.

Basing Ned’s body on a near complete skeleton of a Neanderthal from the Smithsonian Museum, the series documents the layering on of the powerful muscle that coated his body. 

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The Museum's Professor Chris Stringer with Ella Al-Shamahi at inside the Human Evolution gallery

 

Once fully realised, it finally falls to Andy Serkis to bring Ned back to life as a young man. Physically smaller than most modern humans, Ned would have been much stronger and faster with a very powerful upper body. Andy works with his team to reconstruct a Neanderthal hunt - showing how they used their immense strength and speed to ambush and bring down huge animals like Woolly Mammoths.

The series also explores how Ned may have moved, following likely impairments from his brain trauma. The skeleton on which his body is based  suffered a lower arm amputation at some point, long before death. Serkis explores how this would have restricted movement – and how Ned and the Neanderthal his body is based on, would have depended on the empathy and care of other Neanderthals to survive.

Neanderthals were well adapted to their environment, but there was more to them than their physiques. Ella explores new archaeological research that is revealing intriguing details about the Neanderthal mind. In the sea caves of Gibraltar she sees evidence of possible Neanderthal art - and even their apparent penchant for dressing up in vulture feathers. And in London, computer modelling of the Neanderthal vocal track allows us to hear what a Neanderthal may have sounded like 40,000 years after they became extinct.

Ella Al-Shamahi says: “We made the world’s most scientifically accurate and functional Neanderthal avatar... then we asked the Hollywood king of motion capture Andy Serkis to help bring him to life. That makes for a pretty cool science show. For me, one of the most exciting moments was putting that avatar onto a crowded London Underground train and asking just how well does he fit in?”

Made by VIXPIX Films, Neanderthals: Meet Your Ancestors starts on BBC Two at 8pm on Sunday 13 May.

ENDS 

Notes for editors

Chris Stringer and Ella Al-Shamahi are available for interviews via the NHM press office. Contact: Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654/ (0)779 969 0151 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk

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