Reconstructed Neanderthal chest reveals unusual breathing technique to power muscular bodies in harsh climates
Ancient cousins had much larger lung capacity than modern humans
The reconstructed ribcage of a Neanderthal has revealed that our ancient cousins walked with an upright stance and breathed differently to modern humans.
Three dimensional scans of a 60,000-year-old male skeleton known as Kebara 2, the most complete Neanderthal specimen unearthed to date, allowed researchers unprecedented insight into the structure of its chest.
They compared the scans with ones obtained from present-day adult men, and found “striking” differences between the species.
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They found that Neanderthals would have had a greater lung capacity and a straighter spine than today's humans.
The structure of their bodies also helped them conserve heat in the harsh, cold regions they inhabited.
“People will big lower thorax capacity like the ones we see in Neanderthals usually have more functional lung capacity,” Dr Ella Been, the senior author of the study, told The Independent. “What we think we see is that their overall ability to breathe is better than ours.”
The shape of the reconstructed ribcage suggested that Neanderthals had a larger diaphragm than modern humans. This would have allowed them to suck in large gulps of air without expanding their ribs.
This ability would have been necessary to power their muscular bodies. Muscles need a large amount of energy, which in turn requires a large volume of oxygen.
Dr Been also noted that the large thorax seen on their specimen would have enabled the Neanderthal to conserve heat in its body better than modern humans – a vital adaptation for living in cold climates.
The results of this analysis were published in the journal Nature Communications.
Understanding the differences between different human species can help scientists understand their evolutionary fates, and why some outlasted others.
"Neanderthals are closely related to us with complex cultural adaptations much like those of modern humans, but their physical form is different from us in important ways," said Professor Patricia Kramer from the University of Washington, one of the paper’s co-authors.
"Understanding their adaptations allows us to understand our own evolutionary path better."