We've Been Picturing The Neanderthal Wrong All This Time

A smoldering Neanderthal in the Natural History Museum, London. Neil Howard/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Picture a Neanderthal and you might imagine a thick-browed "caveman” with a hunched back and barrel chest. However, the world’s first-ever 3D virtual reconstruction of a Neanderthal ribcage is now challenging this outdated view of our closest ancient human relatives.

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications this Tuesday, revealed that Neanderthals had a spine that was slightly straighter than ours and with a greater lung capacity. In theory, they actually had "better posture" than we do. 

Not only does this potentially change the way we think Neanderthals might have looked, but it could also tell us about their behavior and lifestyle. For example, why would they need such big lungs? Did their super-straight spine mean they walked differently than us?

"The shape of the thorax is key to understanding how Neanderthals moved in their environment because it informs us about their breathing and balance," Asier Gomez-Olivencia, an Ikerbasque Fellow at the University of the Basque Country and the study's lead author, said in a statement.

The findings come from the fossilized remains of a rib cage and upper spine that once belonged to a male Neanderthal some 60,000 years ago. The skeleton, labeled as “Kebara 2” (or more affectionately known as "Moshe"), were discovered in Kebara Cave in Northern Israel's Carmel mountain range in 1983 along with several other Neanderthals.

CT scans of the remains allowed an international team of scientist from universities in Spain, Israel, and the US to create a 3D model of the chest. Needless to say, this was no small task. Each vertebra and all of the rib fragments had to be individually scanned and rendered, then resampled into a three-dimensional model (image below).

The Neanderthal thorax (left) and the human thorax (center) overlayed with each other (right). Gomez-Olivencia, et al/Nature Communications 

The actual size of the thorax appears similar to modern-day humans. However, the researchers argue that Neanderthals might have had a big lung capacity due to notable differences in the shape and structure of the thorax compared to that of a modern human. It's possible that they required this extra lung power because they were typically shorter yet stockier than modern humans. It also might have helped them bear the strain of a harsh environment pushed on them by climate change. On the other hand, it might have made them less adaptive to climate change.

"The differences between a Neanderthal and modern human thorax are striking," said Markus Bastir, a senior research scientist at the Laboratory of Virtual Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History in Spain.

“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,” added Patricia Kramer, professor in the UW Department of Anthropology. “Understanding their adaptations allows us to understand our own evolutionary path better.”

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