Neanderthals didn’t ride bucking broncos (as far as we know), but the Stone Age hominids did seem to have one thing in common with rodeo riders: injuries. In 1995, paleoanthropologists Thomas Berger and Erik Trinkaus, now at Washington University in St. Louis, noted that Neanderthals had a disproportionate number of injuries to their heads and necks. The same is true among modern rodeo riders. Just as these cowboys get too close for comfort to angry horses and bulls, Neanderthals’ hunting style—sneaking up on prey and jabbing them with heavy spears—brought their upper bodies within striking distance of large, hoofed animals.
Over the last 17 years, researchers have reassessed the Neanderthal-rodeo rider connection. Recently, in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Trinkaus offered alternative explanations for the trauma patterns.
In the new study, Trinkaus considered the injuries recorded in the bones of early modern humans that lived at the same time as Neanderthals. Early human trauma hadn’t been as well studied as Neanderthal trauma. Statistically speaking, Trinkaus saw no difference between the two species’ wounds; they both suffered a lot of harm to the head and neck. This means ambush hunting may not account for all of these injuries because humans often hurled projectiles at animals while standing back at a safe distance. Recent archaeological work indicates Neanderthals might have done the same thing on occasion. Instead, the source of those injuries might have been violent attacks within or between the two species.
Then again, Trinkaus suggests, Neanderthals and humans might not have had an abnormal amount of upper body trauma after all. He points out that even minor injuries to the head can leave marks on the skull because there isn’t a lot of tissue separating the skin and bone. Arms and legs, however, have fat and muscle that safeguard the bones against more minor flesh wounds. So, anthropologists may not be getting a good estimate of trauma to these parts of the body.
Another factor might also be masking lower body injuries—the mobile lifestyle of Stone Age hominids. Both humans and Neanderthals moved around a lot to find appropriate food and shelter. An individual who couldn’t keep up with the group, due to a broken leg, say, might have been left behind to die, perhaps in places where their bones didn’t readily preserve. (Trinkaus acknowledges that some fossils of old, sick Neanderthals have been found. But although their afflictions, such as arthritis, would have been painful, they wouldn’t have prevented them from walking.)
As Trinkaus shows, there’s more than one way to read Neanderthal trauma. But the small numbers of injured bones left in the fossil record make it hard to know which interpretation is correct.