Homo neanderthalensis, the early human ancestor better known colloquially as the Neanderthal, has long been associated with brutish behavior, but a new study published in Science Advances adds to the growing body of literature that challenges this stereotype.
As Meagan Cantwell reports for Science magazine, a team of European researchers has found that Neanderthals were capable of wielding a precision grip, placing their hand usage more in line with tailors and painters than bricklayers, butchers and other brute-force laborers.
To assess Neanderthals’ capacity for precise craftsmanship, scientists from the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at Germany’s University of Tübingen, Switzerland’s University of Basel and the Natural History Museum of Basel turned to entheses, or scars left at the points where muscle attaches to bone. These markings, according to New Scientist’s Michael Marshall, manifest as raised areas of bone that can be measured via 3D scanning.
Precision grips require deft manipulation of the index finger and thumb—imagine writing with a pen or guiding a paintbrush across a blank canvas—while power grips, which Marshall likens to the chokehold young children use when grasping crayons with their entire fist, place more stress on the thumb and pinky. Each grip produces a distinctive muscle-use pattern that can be assessed through analysis of skeletal remains.
45 skeletons housed at the Natural History Museum of Basel provided the framework necessary to differentiate between power- and precision-generated entheses, Kashmira Gander writes for Newsweek. These specimens date to the 19th century and boast comprehensive occupational histories, enabling researchers to divide them into two groups: manual laborers whose everyday tasks required power grips and workers whose jobs called for precision rather than power.
The team compared this historical data with scans of six fossilized Neanderthal skeletons and six early modern humans who, according to Science’s Cantwell, lived more than 40,000 years ago.
The Conversation’s Francis Wenban-Smith details the study’s surprising results, noting that all of the Neanderthal skeletons exhibited muscle patterns consistent with modern precision laborers. Of the six early modern humans, only three displayed a similar knack for precision. Two matched the patterns generated by 19th-century manual laborers, while the sixth yielded ambiguous results.
Previous investigations have cited Neanderthals’ sturdy hand bones as a sign of their propensity for brute force strength. But the new study offers a more complex portrait of these early human ancestors, suggesting that activities such as cave painting and jewelry-making were made possible by Neanderthals’ unexpected dexterity.
“We therefore refute the commonly held view of the clumsy, forceful Neanderthal,” study co-author Katerina Harvati, a paleoanthropologist at the Senckeberg Centre, says in a statement. “Like modern humans, Neanderthals were competent tool makers and tool users, who were using delicate and precise hand and finger movements in their daily activities.”
The team’s findings suggest that members of Neanderthal communities performed similar sets of tasks, according to New Scientist’s Marshall. Comparatively, early modern humans appear to have adopted specialization, splitting physically laborious and craft-based tasks between members of a community.
Additional research is necessary to confirm the study’s conclusions on a larger scale, but as lead author Alexandros-Fotios Karakostis tells Newsweek’s Gander, the scientists are confident in their results.
“Despite the small sample, we feel that our results on Neanderthals habitually performing precision grips are very strong,” Karakostis explains. “All individuals examined, spanning a large geographic and temporal range, showed this pattern, contrary to our expectation for habitual power grasping."