Ape-like or human? A disagreement breaks out on the Neanderthal


The image of Neanderthals as curled-up monkeys has been dispelled decades ago, but some scientists fear that recent research is failing to revive it.

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Recent reconstructions of the spine have reinstated an old Neanderthal posture debate, and therefore standing up completely is the only prerogative of Homo sapiens.

No more representations of Neanderthals as impetuous imbeciles. But the authors of a new reconstruction of the spine of La Chapelle-aux-Saint 1, according to the authors of the new reconstruction of the spine, are arguably the most famous Neanderthal fossil to have been exhumed.

The new reconstruction, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, takes in the vertebrae of the spine, as well as the pelvis and a cast of the right hip bone. The hip bone is missing, lost in the 1970s.

Measurements of the pelvis angle in relation to the spine and the way the vertebrae are superimposed suggest that the Neanderthal spine was curved roughly like ours – it slips from the lower back to the waist.

"The posture of Neanderthals is very human," said Martin Häusler of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, who led the study.

Building a pattern of what a spine looks like is a daunting task. In fossils, shock-absorbing disks that fill gaps between vertebrae – and often many vertebrae – have disappeared.

The remaining bones are far from immaculate: millennia past locked in the rock and soil are slowly deformed. This lets scientists guess the curvature of the spine.

Shortly after discovering the skeleton of La Chapelle-aux-Saint in 1908 in central France, French paleontologist Marcellin Boule published a story of what this man looked like. The image was that of a half-man, half-ape folded, with a flat spine, hips and knees bent and a big toe coming out of the foot.

A re-examination of the remains in the 1950s showed that the Neanderthal posture resembled that of modern man.

However, two recent studies – here and here – of Kebara fossils in Israel suggest that Neanderthals may indeed have had a flatter lower spine compared to modern humans. The results have since taken on a controversial hue.

"These studies are part of a continuing trend to see Neanderthals as less" human "than ourselves," write Häusler and his colleagues in the new article.

The statement got an immediate rebuttal.

"This is not true," says Asier Gómez Olivencia, from the University of the Basque Country, Spain, whose reconstructions of the spine are more critical.

"A flatter thorn for us is not worse, it's just different. We do not say that they look like skeletons.

Häusler agrees with his new analysis. "We are pretty confident that this is the true form," he says.

One of the problems, he explains, is that all other specimens of Neanderthal – including Kebara specimens – come from sick individuals.

"You have to take that into account," he says, "and you can not just reassemble the spine and then see what it looks like."

Gómez Olivencia is not convinced. "They do not provide enough evidence," he says, "that's my point of view."

Among other researchers in the field, opinions are divided and, cautiously, the sides are taken.

"I am personally impressed by the study," said paleoanthropologist Markus Bastir of the National Museum of Natural History in Madrid, Spain, who did not participate in the study.

"It puts the importance of specific fossils in a larger picture. I am more inclined to the new story with the curvature than that of the right [spine]. "

It is unlikely that this new study is the last word on the issue, he adds. There are only a few Neanderthal specimens to work with, and the reconstructions are still based on the researchers' interpretation.

The derisory number of published specimens is expected to swell, however. Bastir is currently working on anatomical reconstructions of more than 12 Neanderthals discovered in 1994 in El Sidrón cave, in northern Spain.

"Let's see what our future work will bring," he says.

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