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Neanderthals were stocky from birth

If a Neanderthal were to sit down next to us on the underground, we would probably first notice his receding forehead, prominent brow ridges and projecting, chinless face.

Neanderthals were stocky from birth
Reconstruction of a Neanderthal child from the Musee National de Prehistoire 
in Les Eyzies de Tayac, France [Credit: Don Hitchcock]
Only on closer inspection would we notice his wider and thicker body. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have now investigated whether the differences in physique between Neanderthals and modern humans are genetic or caused by differences in lifestyle. Their analysis of two well-preserved skeletons of Neanderthal neonates shows that Neanderthals’ wide bodies and robust bones were formed by birth.

The evolutionary lines of modern humans and Neanderthals diverged around 600,000 years ago. Paleoanthropologists know from bone finds that Neanderthals possessed not only a receding forehead, prominent brow ridges and projecting, chinless face, but also a different physique. They had more robust bones, a wider pelvis and shorter limbs. This may have been an evolutionary adaptation to the colder climate of Europe and Asia, as a more compact body loses less heat to the environment. However, the skeletal differences may also have arisen as a result of different lifestyles and activity patterns, because mechanical stresses affect the formation of bones.

Neanderthals were stocky from birth
The remains of a baby Neanderthal found near Le Moustier in France belong to one of the best preserved sceletons
 of these hominids. The child died at the age of four months at most - why, will remain unclear 
[Credit: © Musée national de Préhistoire, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac Sireuil/Ph. Jugie]
To address this conundrum, Max Planck scientists examined two skeletons of Neanderthal babies. One of the skeletons was from Mezmaiskaya Cave in the Caucasus, where in 1993 archaeologists discovered one of the best-preserved Neanderthal skeletons ever found in an area only slightly larger than an A4 page. As it turned out, Neanderthals had buried a roughly two-week-old newborn in the cave 70,000 years ago.

The second specimen was an infant no more than four months old from a cave near the village of Le Moustier in the French Dordogne. “Both skeletons were exceptionally well preserved. Moreover, they come from two sites that are widely separated geographically, so they aren’t just sampling a restricted part of the Neanderthal range,” says Tim Weaver from the University of California, Davis, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Neanderthals were stocky from birth
Virtual reconstruction of the Mezmaisakya Neanderthal (a) Skeleton (b) Skull in right lateral view (Scale bars: 5cm]
[Credit: National Academy of Sciences of the USA]
The researchers determined the length and thickness of pelvic, leg and arm bones and compared them with data from 68 newborns or fetuses of modern humans from a collection at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The results show that the Neanderthal babies were born with many features of adult Neanderthals. The differences in physique are likely genetic in nature, as different habits, such as hunting and use of tools, wouldn’t have affected the skeleton at that age. “The study of exceptional specimens such as those of Mezmaisakya and Le Moustier show us that the Neanderthal ‘bauplan’ was mostly likely determined by their genes and not by their environment or behaviour,” says Jean-Jacques Hublin, Director at the Leipzig-based Max Planck Institute.

Although maternal diet and activity may have influenced the development of the neonatal skeleton, the researchers believe that genetic differences are a more likely explanation. Some findings, such as shorter limbs, are consistent with the climate hypothesis, which states that the Neanderthal body was adapted to cold, while others, such as an elongated pubic bone, are more difficult to explain but may be related to birth or gait.

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Max Planck Society [May 26, 2016]

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  1. It appears they were "out of Africa" long before Sapiens and Denisovians so they had a much longer time up against the ice sheet. Natural selection would have certainly been in play here for body shape.

  2. The anatomical differences between neandertals & sapiens are not in the first place due to colder environments, e.g. they had projecting noses, whereas (sub)polar mammals have shorter noses (& other extremities). Projecting nostrils surrounded by large para-nasal air-sinuses are typical of wetland species. All neandertal fossils are found in wetlands & river valleys (beaver ponds, oxbow lakes, reed beds) or else at sea-coasts, e.g. all over the northern Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Petralona, Anatolia & even Israel, and even on islands that could only be reached overseas, e.g. Crete & Cyprus. Inland neandertals didn't differ anatomically from coastal neandertals: this suggest they might have seasonally followed the rivers to the sea & v.v. (e.g. following anadromous species such as salmon).
    In fact, virtually all differences between them & us can be explained by wetland or/and littoral adaptations: heavy & thick bones (pachyosteosclerosis, though less heavy & thick as in erectus), long low flat skulls (platycephaly), dorso-ventrally flattened femora (platymeria), very wide bodies & very large lungs (twice sapiens), huge brains (DHA & other brain-specific nutrients in aquatic foods), etc. All this leaves no doubt neandertals spent a lot of time in shallow waters, diving & wading for shallow aquatic & waterside animal & plant foods. Indeed, some of their tools bear traces of cattails (which grow in shallow waters: collected by wading?) & their dental calculus sometimes contained traces of waterlily roots (collected by diving: erectus already dived for waternuts at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov). In Gibraltar, neandertals collected shellfish & butchered stranded marine mammals (Stringer cs 2008 PNAS 105:10087).
    Conclusion: biologically, their stocky build is due to semi-aquaticism, and we shouldn't be surprised that neandertal babies were already stocky (e.g. see my 2013 paper in Hum.Evol.28:237). In modern man, Sea Gypsy children can swim & dive long before they can walk: neandertal anatomy shows that they were a lot more adapted to spending a lot of time in the water than e.g. Sea Gypsies. It's still often assumed (using different "arguments") that neandertals were hunters on open plains, but when viewed in detail, none of these arguments hold water (just-so anthropocentric thinking). When we dismiss this traditional view (stocky neandertals running after horses etc.), a lot of facts about neandertals become clearer.


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