Neanderthals are often described as having straight spines and poor posture. However, these prehistoric humans looked more like us than many assume. Researchers from the University of Zurich have shown that Neanderthals walked upright, in the manner of modern humans, through a virtual reconstruction of the pelvis and spine of a very well preserved Neanderthal skeleton, discovered in France.
A straight and well-balanced posture is one of the defining characteristics of Homo sapiens. In contrast, early Neanderthal reconstructions in the early 20th century described them as only partially standing. These reconstructions are based on the largely preserved skeleton of an elderly man, the Neanderthal man, exhumed at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France.
Since the 1950s, scientists have known that the image of the Neanderthal as a caveman is not accurate. Their similarities to ourselves, both from the point of view of evolution and behavior, have also been known for a long time, but the pendulum has shifted in recent years in the opposite direction. "Focusing on the differences is back in fashion," said Martin Haeusler, a specialist in the medicine of the evolution of UZH. For example, recent studies have used a few isolated vertebrae to conclude that Neanderthals did not yet have a well developed double S spine.
However, a virtual reconstruction of the skeleton of La Chapelle-aux-Saints has now proved otherwise. This computer-generated anatomical model was created by the research group led by Martin Haeusler of the University of Zurich and included Erik Trinkaus from the University of Washington in St. Louis. The researchers were able to show that the individual in question as well as the Neanderthals in general had a lumbar region and a curved neck just like the humans of today.
Sacrum, vertebrae and signs of wear as evidence
During the reconstruction of the basin, researchers discovered that the sacrum was positioned in the same way as in modern man. This led them to conclude that the Neanderthals had a lumbar region with a well developed curvature. By assembling the individual lumbar and cervical vertebrae, they were able to discern that the curvature of the spine was even more pronounced. The very close contact between the spinous processes – the bony prominences on the back of each vertebra – has become evident, as have the salient wear marks caused in part by the curvature of the spine.
Recognize the similarities
Wear marks in the hip joint of La Chapelle-aux-Saints skeleton also indicated that Neanderthals had a straight posture similar to that of modern man. "The pressure on the hip joint and the pelvic position does not differ from ours," Haeusler said. This finding is also corroborated by analyzes of other Neanderthal skeletons having sufficient leftover vertebrae and pelvic bones. "Overall, there is virtually no evidence that would indicate that Neanderthals have a fundamentally different anatomy," Haeusler says. "The time has come to recognize the fundamental similarities between Neanderthals and modern humans and to focus on the subtle biological and behavioral changes that occurred in humans at the end of the Pleistocene."
The study is reported in PNAS.
Isotopes found in bones suggest that Neanderthals ate fresh meat
Martin Haeusler el al., "Morphology, pathology and vertebral posture of the Neanderthal of La Chapelle-aux-Saints," PNAS (2019). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1820745116