Thoracic Morphology in Near Eastern Neandertals and Early Modern Humans Compared with Recent Modern Humans from High and Low Altitudes

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Journal of Human Evolution


Paleoanthropologists have long noted the unique “hyper-barrel-shaped” Neandertal thorax as inferred from fragmentary ribs, clavicles, and sterna. Yet scholars disagree whether the Neandertal thorax represents an adaptation to cold climates or elevated activity levels.

Given the difficulties of reconstructing overall chest shape from isolated and fragmentary thoracic skeletal elements, it is worthwhile comparing Neandertals and contemporaneous early modern human fossils from the same geographic region to recent modern human skeletons that are known to have enlarged chests. This study compares thoracic skeletal morphology in two Near Eastern Neandertals (Tabūn C1 and Shanidar 3) and two early modern humans from the same region (Skhūl IV and V) with four samples of recent modern human skeletons from the Andes (n = 347): two coastal groups and two groups from high altitudes. The two highland groups, similar to their living descendants, exhibit morphological evidence of anteroposteriorly deep and mediolaterally wide chests as part of respiratory adaptations to high-altitude hypoxia. I calculated the percentage of deviation of each Neandertal and early modern human fossil from the means of the four recent modern human samples for clavicle and rib lengths and curvatures.

Shanidar 3 and Tabūn C1 exhibit ribs that are slightly larger and less curved than the Andean samples, indicating slightly larger thoracic skeletons than modern humans who are known to have enlarged chests in response to increased respiratory demands. Skhūl IV and V have significantly shorter ribs with greater curvature suggesting especially narrow thoracic skeletons. Comparisons with Andean populations suggest that the enlarged thoraces of Neandertals may reflect high activity levels, although results from this study do not exclude cold adaptation as an explanatory factor.


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