Ape-like or human?

Recent spinal reconstructions have focussed debate on Neanderthal posture and, by implication, whether standing fully upright is the sole preserve of Homo sapiens.

Gone are the depictions of Neanderthals as hulking imbeciles. But echoes of prejudices against our prehistoric cousins persist in analyses of Neanderthal remains, according to the authors of a new spinal reconstruction of La Chapelle-aux-Saint 1, arguably the most famous Neanderthal fossil to have been unearthed.

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

Measurements of the angle of the pelvis in relation to the spine and how the vertebrae stack one atop the other suggest that the Neanderthal spine was curved much like our own – sweeping inwards from the lower back towards the waist.

“The posture of the Neanderthals is very human-like,” says Martin Häusler from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, who led the study.

Building a model of what a spine looked like is a challenging task. In fossils, the shock-absorbing discs that fill the gaps between vertebrae – and often many vertebrae themselves – are gone.

The bones that remain are far from pristine: millennia spent encased in rock and soil slowly warp their form. This leaves scientists guessing at how curved the spine was.

Shortly after the La Chapelle-aux-Saint skeleton was discovered in 1908 in central France, French palaeontologist Marcellin Boule published an account of what the man looked like. The image was one of a hunched half-man, half-ape, with flat spine, bent hips and knees, and a big toe jutting out from the foot.

A re-examination of the remains in the 1950s showed the Neanderthal posture to be more similar to that of modern humans.

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

“These studies form part of a persistent trend to view the Neandertals as less ‘human’ than ourselves,” write Häusler and his colleagues in the new paper.

The statement earned immediate rebuttal.

“This isn’t true,” says Asier Gómez Olivencia from the University of the Basque Country, Spain, whose flatter spinal reconstructions are criticised.

“A flatter spine for us is not worse, it is just different. We are not saying they are apelike.”

Häusler stands by his new analysis. “We are quite confident that this is the real shape,” he states.

One problem, he explains, is that all other Neanderthal specimens – the Kebara specimens included – are from diseased individuals.

“You have to take this into account,” he says, “and you cannot just reassemble the spine and then see how it looks.”

Gómez Olivencia is unconvinced. “They are not providing enough evidence,” he says, “that’s my point of view.”

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

“I’m personally impressed by the study,” says palaeoanthropologist Markus Bastir from the National Museum of Natural History in Madrid, Spain, who was not involved in the study.

“It puts the significance of specific fossils into a broader picture. I’m more inclined to the new story with the curvature than to that of the straight [spine].”

It’s unlikely that this new study will be the final say on the issue, he adds. There are only a few Neanderthal specimens to work with, and reconstructions always rely on interpretation by the researchers.

The paltry number of published specimens is set to swell, though. Bastir is currently working on anatomical reconstructions for more than 12 Neanderthal individuals discovered in 1994 in the El Sidrón cave in northern Spain.

“Let’s see what our future work will bring,” he says.

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