An international team of scientists completed the first 3D virtual reconstruction of a Neanderthal rib cage.
Researchers from universities in Spain, Israel, and the US scanned fossils from a 60,000-year-old male skeleton to create a 3D model of his chest.
The results, detailed in a paper published by the journal Nature Communications, highlight key differences between the trite image of a hunched-over “caveman” and actual Homo neanderthalensis.
Having emerged some 400,000 years ago in what is now Western Europe and Southwest and Central Asia, the hunter-gatherers weathered several glacial periods before going extinct about 40,000 years ago.
“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,” study co-author Patricia Kramer, a University of Washington professor, said in a statement. “Understanding their adaptations allows us to understand our own evolutionary path better.”
Years of research has clarified certain elements of the archaic humans. But there is still some debate over the structure of their thorax—the area of the body containing the rib cage and upper spine.
“The shape of the thorax is key to understanding how Neanderthals moved in their environment because it informs us about their breathing and balance,” lead study author Asier Gomez-Olivencia, an Ikerbasque Fellow at the University of the Basque Country, explained.
For their model of the thorax, scientists used direct observations of the Kebara 2 skeleton—found in 1983 at Kebara Cave in Northern Israel’s Carmel mountain range—and medical CT scans of vertebrae, ribs, and pelvic bones.
Despite its missing cranium, remains of the young adult male are considered one of the most complete Neanderthal skeletons, believed to be between 59,000 and 64,000 years old.
From that, the team rendered what they describe as an upright citizen with greater lung capacity and a straighter spine than present-day people.
“The differences between a Neanderthal and modern human thorax are striking,” according to Markus Bastir, senior research scientist at the Laboratory of Virtual Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History in Spain.
For starters, the Neanderthal spine is located deeper inside the thorax, which is wider in its lower part. This shape, the group said, suggests a larger diaphragm and therefore greater lung capacity.
What that means for how Kebara 2 lived is “ripe for further research,” Kramer said.
Nearly two years ago, the same research team created a virtual reconstruction of the Kebara 2 spine.
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