Rights: University of Waikato Published 14 June 2017 Download

Professor Tom Higham from Oxford University explains some of the physiology of Homo neanderthalensis – an evolutionary ancestor of modern humans today.



Neanderthals are really cool. These are two reconstructions that were done a few years ago by two sculptors called the Kennis brothers, and they were asked to recreate a modern human and a Neanderthal for a big exhibition called the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project. And on the left-hand side, here is their version of a Neanderthal, and on the right is an anatomically modern human

There are some quite significant differences to look at. First of all in terms of the skull, Neanderthals had quite a long-shaped skull, quite big. They had on average a bigger brain size than us – around 1,600 cc – compared to modern humans, but of course bigger brains don’t necessarily mean clever people. They also had some features of the skull which are markedly different to ours. So they had quite a large supraorbital torus, the brow ridge across here, which is often associated with dissipating the muscular forces that are generated when humans chew things. Their nasal passages were quite large and flared, and this is often explained by the idea that these people were living in Ice Age Eurasia, so very much colder conditions than anatomically modern humans. And this may be an adaptation to dealing with large amounts of cold air that they had – that they had to breathe. Below the neck, there were some differences as well. If you, for example, took a femur of a Neanderthal and cut it into – cut it in half – and looked at the cross-section and compared it with a modern human, you’d find that Neanderthal human bones are much, much thicker, much more robust. And again this is likely an adaptation to colder conditions.

The Science Learning Hub would like to acknowledge:
Professor Tom Higham, University of Oxford
The Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution
Models of Neanderthal man and Homo sapiens sapiens, © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London/Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions
Comparative photo of human and Neanderthal skulls in profile, Dr Mike Baxter, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0
Reconstructed Neanderthal skull, © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London