Science & Technology

New Research Says Neanderthals Had Great Posture, Thank You Very Much

When you think of a caveman, you probably imagine a hybrid of a Flintstone, a Geico caveman, and a guy with terrible posture. It's common knowledge cavemen didn't walk upright; only us modern men have figured that out. Right? Well... no.

A Tale of Two Spinal Curves

Counterintuitively, modern humans can stand up straight because our spines are curved — softly S-shaped, to be exact. Our spines curve slightly inward at the lower back, slightly outward at the upper back, and then slightly inward, again, at the neck. This allows our bodies to balance in an upright position, or, you know, "stand."

Scientists originally thought Neanderthals — the hominid species most people imagine when they think of a caveman — had a very different spinal structure: a straight lower back and a heavily curved upper back. This "unbalanced" structure, they imagined, would translate into a hunched posture, with constantly bent knees and flexed hips — a kind of eternal, slumping crouch.

This whole hunched-caveman theory was primarily based on reconstructions of a single Neanderthal skeleton, unearthed in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France. Discovered in 1908, the skeleton was mostly intact, and old in two different ways: it was roughly 60,000 years old when it was discovered, and belonged to an individual who was relatively old when he died. Hence the fossil's nickname, "The Old Man of La Chappelle."

As technology changed, so did interpretations of "The Old Man" and his posture. By the 1950s, scientists knew that the idea Neanderthals couldn't walk upright was based less on fossil evidence than on assumptions that cavemen were subhuman. Still, it's recently come back into vogue to focus on the differences — including the spinal ones — between cavemen and modern men.

Virtual reconstruction of the skeleton found in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, based on high-resolution 3D surface scans of the spine and pelvis.

Revisiting the "Old Man"

A new study undercuts this trend, though, and proposes something else entirely. What if there aren't a lot of spinal differences between Neanderthals and us? And what if that's apparent from the exact Neanderthal skeleton everyone has been pondering since 1908?

The study's authors — led by Martin Haeusler, a University of Zurich specialist in evolutionary medicine — reexamined the "Old Man of La Chapelle," this time with technology unfathomable to scientists at the turn of the 20th century. First, Hauesler and his team took high-resolution, 3D surface scans of the skeleton's spine and pelvis. Then, from these scans, they crafted a computer-generated model of "The Old Man."

He looked, as a celebrity tabloid would say, just like us!

By looking at the spine in relation to the pelvis, they could see what hadn't been obvious before — that the "Old Man" had an inner curve in his lower back, or lumbar region, much like ours. The surface scans also allowed the team to see wear and tear on the joints, which offered insight into how the "Old Man" stood and distributed his weight. The patterns of wear around his hips and between his spinal vertebrae were a lot like ours.

"On the whole, there is hardly any evidence that would point to Neanderthals having a fundamentally different anatomy," Haeusler said in a statement. The curve of the "Old Man's" spine wouldn't be abnormal on a human today. What's more, it doesn't seem like the La Chapelle skeleton is an anomaly — their findings apply to other Neanderthal skeletons, too.

It looks like it's time to start imagining a new, upstanding caveman. In fact, the GEICO cavemen might be a start. Those guys had terrible hair, but decent posture!

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Cavemen were more intelligent than you'd think, as Clive Finlayson explains in his book "The Smart Neanderthal: Cave Art, Bird Catching, and the Cognitive Revolution." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice March 15, 2019

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