An analysis of Neanderthal hand bones suggests that these extinct humans had thumbs that were better suited for power grips, as opposed to precision grips, which could mean they used their hands differently than we do.
Researchers have found important physical differences in the thumbs of Neanderthals and modern humans (homo sapiens), suggesting that the two species used their hands in different ways. Found, as described in scientific reports there is potential talk of behavioral differences between the two species, although this may be difficult to prove.
Technically, the Neanderthals were human, but they exhibited some key qualities that, if they were today, would make them stand out in a crowd. The Neanderthals were slightly shorter and thicker than early modern humans, and they had a broad nose with large nostrils. They also had weak chins and prominent foreheads. Their hands were also larger than ours, and as new research points out, Neanderthal hands did not work exactly the same way as ours either.
“If you shook a Neanderthal hand, you would notice this difference,” Ameline Bardo, a postdoctoral researcher at the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent, explained in an email. “There would be confusion over where to place your thumb, and for a thumb fight, I think you would win in terms of speed and movement.”
Good to know.
More practically, the thumbs of the Neanderthals were better suited for squeezing grips – like the way we hold a hammer when we bring it down. Specifically, we use these grips, as they are also called, to hold tools or other objects between our fingers and the palm, while the thumb is used to conduct force. Neanderthals did not have hammers with handles, but these power grips were probably useful when hawith stone tools or by grabbing stones for use as hammers.
At the same time, this may mean that precision grips – where objects are held between the tip of the finger and the thumb – may have been more challenging for the Neanderthals. Challenging, but not impossible. As contradictory research from 2018 shows, Neanderthals used precision grips when performing manual work. What the new research suggests, however, is that precision grips were not very comfortable for Neanderthals, and that they were perhaps more likely to grab power. Unfortunately, we cannot travel back in time and see for ourselves, so this is likely to remain a healthy debate among archaeologists and anthropologists for the foreseeable future.
That said, and as Bardo explained in his email, their “hand anatomy and archaeological record make it clear that the Neanderthals were very intelligent, sophisticated tool users, and used many of the same tools that modern humans did.”
Previous studies in this area showed how the forms of Neanderthal thumbs varied from modern humans, but these bones were studied in isolation. Bardo and her colleagues tried to learn how Neanderthal hand bones actually moved through time and space, which they did by 3D mapping the joints between the bones that were responsible for making thumb movements.
Specifically, the researchers looked at the trapeziometacarpal complex. Even more specifically, they looked at the trapezium (the wrist bone at 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 affected the shape or location of another.
For the analysis, the researchers examined the fossil remains of five Neanderthals (albeit a small sample size), which were compared to bones from five early modern humans and 50 recent modern individuals. The results pointed to a “preferred thumb position” in Neanderthals that was characteristically different from ours.
As the new paper points out, the joint at the base of the Neanderthal thumb is flatter than ours and with a smaller contact surface. This “is better suited for an extended thumb located along the side of the hand”, according to Bardo, leading to grips that were beneficial in the use of some tools, such as spears and scrapers – tools used for hunting. One disadvantage of the Neanderthal anatomy is that it has limited strong precision grips, such as using a small flake to cut meat, she explained.
In modern humans, these joint surfaces tend to be more curved, which is better for gripping objects between the pads of the finger and thumb, i.e. the precision grip.
This variation between the two species is “probably the result of genetic and / or evolutionary differences, but may also partly reflect different functional requirements imposed by the use of different toolkits,” Bardo explained. “In fact, the variation we found among modern humans and Neanderthals may reflect different customary activities with their hands across individuals within each species.”
Again, we can not know for sure, and this new paper is likely to revive a debate on the matter.
What we can say, however, is that the Neanderthals were successful for a long period of time and appeared about 400,000 years ago and became extinct about 45,000 years ago (and for reasons that we still do not really understand). The Neanderthals were also cunning when they created their own jewelry, made cave paintings, decorated himself with featherand used smoother—A specialized bone – to work through hard animal skin.
If precision grips were harsh on Neanderthals, we certainly would not know it from the cultural archaeological record they left behind.