Friday Know Your Primate: Special Neanderthal Edition

Since there has been an overwhelming amount of news concerning Neanderthals lately, I thought it would be a good idea to add to it. The first question the arises is “What the heck is a Neanderthal anyway?” The short answer is that they are a group of hominids that lived from approximately 700,000 to 35,000ish years ago (timelines vary, the recent Neanderthal genome paper dates the origins of neanderthals to approximately 450,000 years ago). Traces of Neanderthals can be found in the Near East, Europe and possibly Asia. They are most widely known based on European finds and it is the morphology of the European finds that I wish to discuss.

This post will be, primarily about the skull, here is our first one:
The above skull is Monte Circeo 1. Neanderthal crania have long, low and wide crania compared to modern humans. Here is a picture of a modern human skull for comparison:
Note the high forehead and globular appearance of the modern human. The next skull is La Ferrassie 1.
Occipital bunning is usually considered to be a Neanderthal trait, although some Neanderthals don’t have them and some early Homo sapiens do. The next picture is of Shanidar 1.
Neanderthals have tall, wide nasal cavities and the nasal bones are angled upward to varying degrees, giving the midface a “beaklike” appearance. The prominent, double arched browridge is one of the more famous Neanderthal features. There is some evidence that the development of the browridges are related to age. Infant and juvenile Neanderthals display small supraorbitals (which leads me to suggest, with tongue firmly in cheek, that modern humans are nothing but neotenous Neanderthals). A large part of the growth and development occurs between adolescence and adulthood with continuing changes thereafter. In South-Central Europe there is also a trend towards smaller supraorbitals that continues across the Mid/Upper Paleolithic boundry. The maxilla – here called inflated – is highly pneumatized (i.e. the maxillary sinus is large among other things). If you refer back to the picture of the modern humans you will see two depressions (fossa) on either side of the face where the cheeks would be. Neandethals do not have these fossa. The next picture is of Shanidar 2.
The abscence of a chin is also one of the more famous Neanderthal traits, although some Neanderthals – such as at Vindija – have a chin (or mental emminence) and some humans don’t (c.f. the debate over the Hobbit). Additionally, Neanderthals have a gap between the third molar and the ascending ramus and, usually, have one or more foramina located under the first molar (for passage of blood vessels and nerves). Neanderthals also have enlarged pulp chambers in their molars (called taurodont molars). Their anterior teeth are large relative to their postcanine teeth, may be shovel shaped and show wear patterns indicative of their use as tools. I am not going to summarize their post-cranial anatomy, rather I will leave you with this picture that comes, ultimately, from Stringer and Gamble’s In Search of the Neanderthals (via Conroy’s Reconstucting Human Origins):


6 Responses

  1. thanks! i really appreciate this, i’m not a skull & bones person, i didn’t go to yale….

  2. Yale! Who can afford to go to Yale?

  3. Wellll. . . . Although you used La Ferrassie to illustrate “bunning” in Neandertals, it seems to me that Monte Circeo, which you used to illustrate other “Neandertal” traits, has more prominent “bunning”. Also, although Shanidar 1 has a large nasal opening, the “modern” skulls you showed seem to have nasal openings just as large(yes, yes, I know they are “modern” humans, whatever that means). As for the bone and muscle illustration above, I think the differences there are noticeable, but fairly subtle in a larger context. Also, I know this picture is widely used to illustrate the differences between Neandertals and “moderns”, but did you notice that the Neandertal has slightly darker skin and hair, and the “modern” looks Northwest European? Does that ring any bells or raise any flags?
    Anne G

  4. I could have used Monte Circeo 1 to illustrate occipital bunning but didn’t want to…Forbes Quarry would have been better on the nasal openings, but not so good on the “pinched” “beaklike” appearance of the Neanderthal midface. In part, this post was written as a brief introduction for those who don’t know much about skeletons or fossils or Neanderthals rather than for a specialized audience. Yeah, the picture is somewhat eurocentric.

  5. I see that the Neanderthal in the last illustration seems to have a sphinx-like hairdo, a bit of chin stubble and a modest amount of pubic hair – but do we actually know anything about how hairy they were? Or are we just copy-and-pasting human hair patterns onto Neanderthals?

  6. As far as I know, this is just a guess…

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