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Why were Neanderthals Assumed to be Hunchbacks?

Spinal arthritis is an inflammation of the spine’s facet joints or the sacroiliac joints that connect the spine to the pelvis. It could be due to wear and tear, autoimmune disorders, infection, or even caused by other factors. But did you know that Neanderthals suffered from this illness?

Neanderthals are subspecies of archaic humans that lived in Eurasia about 40,000 years ago. Researchers assumed that they just had hunched backs, but further studies showed that they actually had arthritis.

The Misconception About Ancient Humans 

Neanderthals are among the most egregious victims of negative public perception in history. As we continue to learn, Neanderthals were not primitive, uncultured hominins but rather a complex species with sophisticated tools, engravings, attitudes toward foreigners, and a potential taste for inbreeding.  A new PNAS study debunks another long-held myth about Homo sapiens: their terrible posture.

In popular culture, Neanderthals are frequently depicted as a large-browed, hunched-over individual who resembles a huge ape on all fours rather than an upright human. Marcellin Boule cited a solitary skeleton of an elderly Neanderthal unearthed in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France, in 1911, as the source of this notoriety. However, as a recent virtual recreation of the Neanderthal’s skeleton demonstrates, he and his ancestors had the type of skeleton that allowed them to walk as upright as any well-proportioned human today.

Lead author Martin Haeusler, Ph.D., and head of the University of Zurich’s Evolutionary Morphology Group said.

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. 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.

Martin Haeusler, University of Zurich, Evolutionary Morphology Group

(Source: Inverse)

Curved Spine versus Straight Spine

Neanderthals would have had straight spines if they walked with a hunch. However, Haeusler and his colleagues’ computer model demonstrates that Neanderthals, like Homo sapiens, had a curved lower spine or the lumbar region and neck. They were able to reconstruct the Neanderthal’s upright position by examining the wear marks on the individual vertebrae that made up these regions.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History notes that the lumbar curve reduces the shock of walking upright and is uniquely human and that is, within the Homo family. 

They also found that the sacrum or the triangle-shaped bone between the hip bones of Neanderthals was positioned similarly to that of humans. Because the sacrum bears the entire weight of the upper body, its location in relation to the rest of the pelvis reveals how the upper body was orientated. Wear marks on the hip joints provided more proof that Neanderthals walked tall. (Source: Inverse)

How Did Marcellin Boule Make a Mistake?

Boule didn’t have much context for his discovery of the Neanderthal skeleton in 1908.

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. Based on his preconceptions, he interpreted any differences in skeletal anatomy compared to recent humans as primitive. He thus failed to take into account the morphological variation among modern humans. Moreover, he failed to understand the meaning of the degenerative changes of the spine of La Chapelle-aux-Saints.

Martin Haeusler, University of Zurich, Evolutionary Morphology Group

According to Haeusler, Boule dismissed the possibility that the Neanderthal’s spine was abnormal for Neanderthals or that he was simply old. (Source: Inverse)

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