Analysis of Neanderthal hand bones suggests that these missing people had thumbs that were more suitable for grips than precision ones, which may mean that they used their hands differently than we do.
Researchers have found key physical differences in the thumbs of Neanderthals and modern humans (homo sapiens), which suggests that the two species used their hands in different ways. The finding, such as described in Scientific Reports, potentially speaks of behavioral differences between the two types, although this may be difficult to prove.
Technically, Neanderthals were humans, but they showed some key characteristics that, if they were around today, would make them stand out in the crowd. Neanderthals were slightly shorter and thicker than early modern humans and had a wide nose with large nostrils. They also had weak chins and protruding eyebrows. Their hands were also larger than ours, and as the new study shows, Neanderthals’ hands don’t work in exactly the same way as ours.
“If you had to shake hands with a Neanderthal, you would notice this difference,” explained in an email Amelin Bardot, a postdoctoral researcher at the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent. “There will be confusion about where to put your thumb, and for a thumb fight, I think you will win in terms of speed and movement.”
Good to know.
More practically, Neanderthal thumbs were more suitable for gripping handles – like the way we hold a hammer when we take it off. In particular, we use these grippers, also called tools, to hold tools or other objects between our fingers and the palm, while the thumb is used to direct force. Neanderthals did not have hammers with handles, but these grippers were probably useful when they were ha.stone tools or when grabbing stones to be used as hammers.
At the same time, this probably means that precision grips – in which objects are held between the tip of the finger and the thumb – may have been more challenging for Neanderthals. Challenging, but not impossible. As contradictory research from 2018 shows that Neanderthals used precise handles when doing manual work. However, new research suggests that precision gripping was not very convenient for Neanderthals and that they may have been more inclined to grip with power. Unfortunately, we cannot go back in time and see for ourselves, so this is likely to remain a healthy debate among archaeologists and anthropologists for the foreseeable future.
He also said, as Bardot explained in his email, “their hand anatomy and archeological records clearly show that Neanderthals were very intelligent, sophisticated users of tools and used many of the same tools that modern humans did.”
Previous research in this area has shown how the shapes of Neanderthal bones of the thumb vary from those of modern humans, but these bones have been studied in isolation. Bardot and her colleagues are looking to learn how Neanderthal hand bones actually move in the time and space they make by 3D mapping the joints between the bones responsible for thumb movements.
In particular, the researchers examined the trapezoid metacarpal complex. More specifically, they looked at the trapezius (the bone of the wrist at the base of the thumb) and the proximal end of the metacarpal (the first bone in the thumb that joins the wrist). They analyzed how changes in the shape or position of one bone affect the shape or position of another bone.
For the analysis, the researchers examined the fossilized remains of five Neanderthal individuals (a small sample size, of course), which were compared to the bones of five early modern humans and 50 modern individuals. The results indicate a “preferred thumb position” in Neanderthals, which is characteristically different from ours.
As the new paper points out, the joint at the base of the Neanderthal thumb is flatter than ours and has a smaller contact surface. This is “more suitable for an extended thumb located on the side of the hand,” according to Bardot, which leads to grips that have been advantageous for the use of certain tools, such as spears and scrapers, tools used for hunting. A disadvantage of Neanderthal anatomy is that it limits strong precision grips, such as the use of a small scale to cut meat, she explained.
In modern humans, these joint surfaces are more curved, which is better for gripping objects between the pads of the finger and thumb, ie. precise grip.
This variation between the two species is “probably the result of genetic and / or differences in development, but may also reflect in part different functional requirements imposed by the use of different sets of tools,” Bardot explained. “In fact, the variation we have found among modern humans and Neanderthals may reflect various common hand activities in individuals in each species.”
Again, we cannot know for sure, and this new document is likely to resume debate on the issue.
What we can say, however, is that Neanderthals have been successful for a long time, appearing about 400,000 years ago and disappearing about 45,000 years ago (and for reasons we still don’t understand). Neanderthals were also cunning, as they created their own jewelrymade Cave drawings, decorated with pen, and uses smoother—Specialized bone – for processing healthy animal skins.
If precise grips were difficult for Neanderthals, we certainly wouldn’t know it from the cultural archeological records they left behind.