Anthropologists have constructed the world's first complete articulated Neanderthal skeleton to expand public and scientific understanding of the group, as well as of the differences between Neanderthals and modern humans.
Their research will be published online March 11, 2005 in The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist, and will be available via Wiley InterScience.
Questions about Neanderthals have persisted for nearly 150 years, many based upon an early erroneous stereotype of a slouched, bent-kneed biped with primitive mental capacity. Over the years, many artists have put forth images of Neanderthals, yet no one had ever constructed a complete skeleton using authentic fossil skeletal material. Anthropologists G.J. Sawyer of the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Blaine Maley of Washington University in St. Louis, MO set out to be the first, in an attempt to contribute to a more objective understanding of Neanderthals.
"The primary purpose was to provide a more scientific understanding of Neanderthal skeletal anatomy based on the totality of available evidence, and to help us get a better estimation of stature differences between modern humans and our Neanderthal cousins," said the authors. "Our results would be used to educate the scientific community and the public on these differences, as well as give us a potential vehicle for undertaking more accurate biomechanical studies on Neanderthal positional and locomotor behaviors."
They based their reconstruction on a skeleton known as La Ferrassie 1, which had been found in France in 1909. It is a well preserved and fairly complete fossil skeleton, though missing a fully complete rib cage, vertebral column, and pelvis. These missing elements were obtained from other individual skeletons, all adult males from Europe or the Levant. Other casts of Neanderthals were also used as reference. Reproductions of modern human bones were added to the reconstruction only where Neanderthal parts were not available.
"For the first time, this reconstruction allows direct skeletal comparison between an articulated Neanderthal to that of a modern human, which reveals just how appreciable their morphological differences are," the authors report.
They found notable contrasts in the Neanderthal's rib cage and pelvis compared to those of modern humans. The Neanderthal thoracic area included a flaring lower rib area, indicating a bell-shaped trunk, not the barrel-shape that had previously been suggested. Further, they report a slightly shorter skeleton than previous estimates – 163.8 cm – although the height might have been slightly underestimated due to variation in vertebrate spacing and the use of bone casts from a potentially shorter individual.
"Reconstruction is by definition artistic and carries an element of subjectivity," the authors caution. "Although the rib cage and pelvis are visually compelling and convincing in demonstrating the relative difference in Neanderthals and modern humans, the introduction of some degree of artistic license makes it difficult to comment on the significance of these findings."
The reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton is currently on display at the Dolan DNA Learning Center in Cold Spring Harbor, NY and will eventually go on permanent display at the American Museum of Natural History.
"It is our hope that the reconstruction will serve as a practical tool for future human evolutionary research to study Neanderthal lifeways, specifically Neanderthal biomechanics – covering all aspects of body movement – including both arm movements and methods of locomotion," the authors conclude.