Scientists have worked out why Neanderthal faces were so different to ours – and it turns out it helped them live an extremely active lifestyle.
The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, was led by the University of New England in Australia. They studied 11 skulls from Homo sapiens, three from Neanderthals, and one from an extinct human species called Homo heidelbergensis.
By creating 3D models of the skulls, the team found that the Neanderthals' breathing was almost twice as effective as modern humans. Their large noses meant they were able to get much more oxygen into their bodies without using their mouths, the former being more efficient energy-wise, countering a previous theory that large noses were due to a heavy bite.
It’s thought that Neanderthals used 3,360 to 4,480 calories a day when staying warm and finding food in winter, something their unique faces may well have been suited for.
“Our conclusion was that the distinctive, projecting Neanderthal face is an adaptation linked with an extreme, high energy lifestyle,” the team’s leader, Professor Stephen Wroe, said in a statement. “It may be because Neanderthals were routinely involved in very strenuous activities, such as running down and killing large animals, or it may simply be that they needed to burn a lot of oxygen just to stay warm in their Ice Age habitats. Or it could be some combination of both.”
Neanderthals went extinct about 40,000 years ago, having co-existed with humans for about 5,000 years. This may have resulted in interbreeding that ultimately led to their demise.
While they shared many bodily traits, they also had many that were different. These included a heavier brow, a weaker chin, bigger noses, and overall much longer faces.
In this latest study, their noses were found to be more effective at warming incoming air, but they were less effective when it came to cold air. They were also much better at getting air into and out of their bodies than us.
“Neanderthals looked very different to us,” said Wroe. “They were shorter, far more robust and muscular than your average modern human, and, perhaps most obviously, they had huge noses and long mid-faces. This projecting mid-face is a true Neanderthal novelty, a specialization which sets them apart, not just from us, but from their ancestors too.”
Neanderthal fossils first discovered in the 19th century painted them as primitive and dim-witted cavemen that were inferior to modern humans. However, we now know that they buried their dead, had flexible diets, and even created cave art 20,000 years before humans.
Previous research has shown that their jawbones continued growing forwards for a year after they were born, resulting in their protruding faces. Now, we also know just how useful their facial anatomy might have been.