For many, the image of Neanderthals walking hunched over is one that has been perpetuated for a long time. However, a new study reveals that the Neanderthals did actually walk upright.
Neanderthals have usually always been presented to us in textbooks and museums as a hunch-backed ancient humanoid. But now some scientists believe that this hunched and barrel-chested version of the precursor to modern humans might be incorrect.
A 3D virtual reconstruction of the Neanderthals has shown that they walked more upright than previously suspected. In addition, it is believed that they had much straighter spines and a greater lung capacity than we do.
The results of the new study were published recently to the Nature Communications journal.
“Neanderthals are closely related to us with complex cultural adaptations much like those of modern humans, but their physical form is different from us in important ways,” said Patricia Kramer, one of the study’s authors, and a professor in the University of Washington department of anthropology. “Understanding their adaptations allows us to understand our own evolutionary path better.”
Besides Kramer, researchers from Spain, Israel, and the United States worked on the study.
The skeleton used in the virtual reconstruction came from a 1983 find in Israel’s Kebara Cave. It is considered to be one of the most complete Neanderthal skeletons found to date — even if the remains are missing the person’s cranium. The skeleton belongs to a male and is referred to as Kebara 2 or K2. He stood around 5 1/2 feet tall and weighed 166 pounds, according to CNN. He is believed to have lived 60,000 years ago and died at 32 years of age.
The study was conducted in order to try to reconstruct the thorax in order to give a greater understanding of how the Neanderthals moved after scientists had debated the hunched-over caveman assumption for decades.
“The shape of the thorax is key to understanding how Neandertals moved in their environment because it informs us about their breathing and balance,” said Asier Gomez-Olivencia, one of the lead study authors and an Ikerbasque Fellow at the University of the Basque Country.
“This was meticulous work,” said Alon Barash, another co-author of the study and lecturer at Israel’s Bar Ilan University. “We had to CT scan each vertebra and all of the ribs fragments individually and then reassemble them in 3D.”
Using 3D virtual reconstruction methods is considered preferable to trying to manipulate the bones or recreate them since the original bones are extremely fragile.
The virtual reconstruction of the Neanderthal skeleton was then compared to that of a modern-day man. The results showed that “Neanderthal ribs connected to the spine more inwardly, which forces the chest cavity out and causes the spine to tilt back,” according to CNN. As a result of this, the spinal column of a Neanderthal “lacks the lumbar curve of modern humans.” This means that Neanderthals actually stood much straighter than we do.
Kramer was fascinated with the results.
“I am really curious about how the straightness of the Neandertal lower back, combined with the shape of the ribcage, impacts forces in the lower spine and pelvis. Modern humans and the other hominins that preserve this region have a lumbar curve but not Neandertals. Why? As a structural engineer and functional morphologist, these questions of shapes connected to behaviors fascinate me.”
It is believed that, as a result of the “wide lower thorax of Neandertals and the horizontal orientation of the ribs,” Neanderthals “relied more on their diaphragm for breathing.”
“Modern humans, on the other hand, rely both on the diaphragm and on the expansion of the rib cage for breathing,” said Ella Been, study co-author and physical therapist at Ono Academic College. “Here we see how new technologies in the study of fossil remains is providing new information to understand extinct species.”
While only one Neanderthal skeleton was studied, it is believed that these results are indicative of other Neanderthals as similar bone structures have been found in other remains.