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Were Neanderthal Thumbs Better Adapted for Tennis?

Were Neanderthal Thumbs Better Adapted for Tennis?

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If you needed repairs done 50,000 years ago you would have been better off with a team of Neanderthals rather than Homo sapiens, a new study has shown. The new research has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and suggests that Neanderthals may have “found precision grips… more challenging.” This means they were adapted for “power” or “squeeze” grips, where objects are held like a hammer between the fingers and the palm, with the thumb used to guide direction. Could it be that our Neanderthal cousins were better adapted for gripping tennis racquets?

The new study analyses thumb morphology in Neanderthals, early humans and modern humans to see how this affected tool use and technological development in these two species. It concludes that Neanderthal thumbs were more adapted for gripping tools or handles. (Ameline Bardo et. al. / Scientific Reports)

The new study analyses thumb morphology in Neanderthals, early humans and modern humans to see how this affected tool use and technological development in these two species. It concludes that Neanderthal thumbs were more adapted for gripping tools or handles. (Ameline Bardo et. al. / Scientific Reports )

Charting Ancient Technological Developments

Neanderthals, pronounced with a “t” rather than a “th,” are our closest human relatives. Living in colder environments, Neanderthals developed large faces, angled cheek bones and broad noses, while their bodies were shorter and stockier than our tall thin frames. However, their brains were larger to ours and the recent discoveries of ancient technologies developed by the extinct species are changing everything we once “assumed” about the ancient species.

The technological abilities of Neanderthals are much debated, especially in relation to the abilities of early modern humans . This new study, however, looks at “thumb morphology” and how this affected tool use and technological development in these two species.

In order to reach their conclusions in relation to Neanderthal thumbs, the team conducted a comparative analysis of the Mc1 and trapezium in modern humans, early humans and Neanderthals. (Ameline Bardo et. al. / Scientific Reports)

In order to reach their conclusions in relation to Neanderthal thumbs, the team conducted a comparative analysis of the Mc1 and trapezium in modern humans, early humans and Neanderthals. (Ameline Bardo et. al. / Scientific Reports )

Mapping Ancient Thumb Prints

Imagine for a second that the knuckles on your hand are a line of hills on a distant horizon, and that your elbow is grand mountain. Well, to understand how this conceptual territory was created, and how it possibly functioned, you would map it, right? Well this is exactly what happened to the ancient hands of five Neanderthals when the team of researchers applied 3D scanning technology to map the joints between the bones that are responsible for movement of the thumb.

Lead researcher Dr. Ameline Bardo, from the Skeletal Biology Research Centre , School of Anthropology and Conservation, at the University of Kent in England, refers to this group of bones and joints as the “trapeziometacarpal complex.” The 3D scans from the hands of the five Neanderthal individuals were compared with similar measurements taken from the remains of five early modern humans , and also with scans from fifty modern adults hands.

Comparative study of potential TMc joint motion in recent modern human and Neanderthals concluded that Neanderthals had thumbs that were better adapted for gripping tools. (Ameline Bardo et. al. / Scientific Reports)

Comparative study of potential TMc joint motion in recent modern human and Neanderthals concluded that Neanderthals had thumbs that were better adapted for gripping tools. (Ameline Bardo et. al. / Scientific Reports )

Anyone for Tennis?

Studying the individual scans, and then comparing their potential movements, the authors of the new paper discovered “covariation in shape and relative orientation of the trapeziometacarpal complex joints.” What this finding suggests is that Neanderthals had developed for repetitive thumb movements compared with modern humans , because the joint at the base of their thumb was flatter with a smaller contact surface. What this means is that Neanderthals would have been better suited to using an extended thumb positioned alongside the side of the hand.

While the position of a thumb might not seem like a big deal, this particular thumb posture suggests Neanderthals used power “squeeze” grips, like the ones we now use to hold the handles of hammers, tennis rackets and baseball bats. The paper does not determine Neanderthals were playing ball games better than humans, but that these specific joint surfaces, being generally smaller in ancient humans and more curved in modern human thumbs, gave Neanderthals an advantage with squeeze gripping for holding tools.

Hands Designed for Fighting

Such comparisons of fossil morphology between the hands of Neanderthals and modern humans may provide further insights into Neanderthal behaviors and how they developed and used early tools. The researchers concluded that while the morphology of Neanderthal hands “is better suited for power ‘squeeze’ grips,” they would still have been able to use precision hand postures, although they would have found this more challenging than modern humans.

It seems that every month new findings about Neanderthals are being discovered. Our perceptions are rapidly changing about how they lived and died, and we get ever closer to finding out how this species died off and went extinct. As our understanding of this species expands we are finding out that the race for dominance on planet Earth was perhaps not as easy as we once thought, and now, knowing Neanderthals had a variety of dynamic grips for holding tools, we can only imagine they also welded weapons with greater skills than us.

Top image: Could it really be that Neanderthal thumbs were better adapted to gripping tools (and tennis rackets)? Source: Mark Herreid / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

Comments

I don't think they ever invented welding.

But, typos aside, we shouldn't be surprised by their fitness for purpose. The whole idea of the inferior species looks less and less plausible the more we learn about them. And us.

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