Ancient Rib Cages & Us

Did you catch the news regarding Neanderthal biomechanics?


It’s a pretty big deal.


The news hit The New York Times, Science Daily, and even CNN!


This is the kind of “news” that gets us excited—and it makes us stop for a moment and want to thank all the researchers out there who continue to study prehistoric man and continue to adjust our thinking about the human form as it exists today.


Here’s the news: We need to erase from our heads the image of Neanderthals as having barrel chests and hunched postures.



In other words, a thousand museum dioramas and textbook drawings may need to be re-worked. (Tens of thousands?)


Scientists, for the first time, applied 3D virtual reconstruction to a Neanderthal rib cage and what they found clashed with earlier thinking.


The two key findings? Neanderthals had:


1. Straighter spines

2. Greater lung capacity


What does this mean?


Well, first of all, it means more study and more questions to answer. (That’s science for you.) But the essential point is that Neanderthals had much more lung capacity than previously thought—and that could change the way we understand how Neanderthals moved, lived and survived.


These findings were first published in late October in the journal Nature Communications based on work on a skeleton first uncovered in 1983 in Israel’s Kebara Cave. While the skeleton is missing its cranium, the remains are considered the most complete Neanderthal remains discovered to date.


This skeleton is known today as ‘K2.’ We can now imagine K2 walking around Earth some 60,000 years ago with a much straighter spine. He stood 5’6” tall and weighed about 166 pounds. He died at age 32.


At the time K2, lived, Neanderthals had already been around for a few hundred thousand years. They survived several major upheavals in the earth’s climate and then would vanish about 20,000 years after K2 was roaming around. Theories suggest that Neanderthals may have been too specialized to hunt Ice Age beasts and couldn’t adapt.


Well, every bit of new understanding helps and that’s why this new rib cage study is so key.

Researchers from Spain, Israel and the United States worked together on the study—a truly international collaboration that involved years and years of studying CT scans of the fossils to recreate a 3D model of K2’s thorax.


"The shape of the thorax is key to understanding how Neandertals moved in their environment because it informs us about their breathing and balance," said Asier Gomez-Olivencia, lead study author and Ikerbasque Fellow at the University of the Basque Country.


It turns out that the Neanderthal (or Neandertal) biomechanics have been the subject of debate for some time. Our thinking to date is based on studies from the 19th and 20th centuries, so we are thrilled to see new technologies being applied in order to develop more accurate pictures of our past.


The researchers used scientific 3D software, medical scans of the skeleton and direct observations of the K2 skeleton, currently at Tel Aviv University, to piece together their ancient puzzle.


"This was meticulous work," said Alon Barash, a co-author of the study and lecturer at Israel's Bar Ilan University. "We had to CT scan each vertebra and all of the ribs fragments individually and then reassemble them in 3D."


So here’s to the scientists who continue to push the frontiers of our understanding. They have lived 60,000 years ago, but Neanderthals might be key to helping us understand issues about adaptation as we sit here today, pondering tomorrow.

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