Neanderthal walk, Study Corrects “Absurd” Misconception.
Neanderthals are some of history’s worst victims of bad PR. As we continue to discover, Neanderthals weren’t crude, uncultured hominins but rather a complex species with sophisticated tools, engravings, and attitudes toward foreigners — albeit with a potential taste for inbreeding. A PNAS study published Monday clears up another misconception we Homo sapiens have always lorded over them: their terrible posture.
Depictions of Neanderthals in pop culture usually show a large-browed, hunched-over individual who looks more like a great ape on all fours than an upright human. That reputation stemmed from a single skeleton from an elderly Neanderthal discovered in La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France, described in 1911 by Marcellin Boule. But as a new virtual reconstruction of the Neanderthal’s skeleton reveals, he and his kin had the type of skeleton that could walk as perfectly upright as any good-postured human today.
“I was always convinced that our ancestors as well as the Neanderthals never walked with a semi-erect posture, as this is biomechanically not adequate,” lead author Martin Haeusler, Ph.D., and head of the University of Zurich’s Evolutionary Morphology Group, tells Inverse. “Likewise, the current reconstruction of Neanderthals by some of our colleagues showing a straight spine without the marked sinusoidal curvature of modern humans is biomechanically absurd.”
If Neanderthals walked with a hunch, like the old drawings suggest, they would have had straight spines. But the computer model created by Haeusler and his team shows that Neanderthals, like Homo sapiens, actually had a curved lower spine (lumbar region) and neck. By looking at the wear marks on the individual vertebrae that made up these regions, they were able to reconstruct the Neanderthal’s upright posture.
The lumbar curve, as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History explains, absorbs the shock of walking upright and is “uniquely human” (that is, within the Homo family).
They also noticed that the Neanderthal’s sacrum — the triangle-shaped bone between the hip bones — was positioned in the same way as it is in humans. The sacrum supports all the weight from the upper body, so its position relative to the rest of the pelvis shows how the upper body was oriented as well. Wear marks on the hip joints added even further evidence that Neanderthals walked tall.
When he found the Neanderthal skeleton in 1908, Boule didn’t exactly have context for his discovery. “Boule thought that Neanderthals were somehow intermediate between great apes and recent humans — at the time of Boule, there were no other fossil human ancestors known,” says Haeusler.
“Based on his preconceptions, he interpreted any differences in skeletal anatomy compared to recent humans as primitive,” he says. In doing so, Boule didn’t consider the possibility that the Neanderthal’s spine was unusual for Neanderthals — or the possibility that he was simply old.
In 2018, research published in Nature Communications also used 3D reconstruction to show that a Neanderthal skeleton found in a cave in northern Israel (known as Kebara 2) had a wider ribcage than humans and a “lower degree of curvatures of the spine.” That paper suggested the Neanderthal’s lower spine was straighter than ours, which is more consistent with a stooped-over posture.
In that paper, Haeusler points out, the scientists compared the virtual thorax of the Neanderthal skeleton to CT scans of 16 modern males. As a result, it too failed “to take into account the morphological variation among modern humans.”
Erik Trinkaus, Ph.D., an anthropology professor at Washington University and a co-author on the PNAS study, adds that Kebara 2 has an “exceptionally wide pelvis and therefore is expected to have a rather wide lower ribcage,” and thus is “not necessarily representative of Neanderthals.”