The ‘big noses’ of Neanderthals possibly allowed for twice the breathing air intake of humans

big-noses-neanderthals-air-breathing© Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London 2014

Last month, we talked about how Neanderthals possibly developed a scope of conscientious healthcare based on both compassion and knowledge. Well, on the topic of health, the striking physiognomy of the Neanderthals could have mirrored their robust lifestyle. To that end, their distinctive skulls (with the downward bearing of the face) and larger noses possibly played a big role in creating enhanced airway passages for more efficient breathing. According to a recent study conducted by the researchers at the University of New England, a Neanderthal’s breathing was likely almost twice as effective as a human’s when it came to pulling in air.

It should be noted that there is a lingering debate in the academic circles concerning the noticeable shape of the Neanderthal skull, with one hypothesis suggesting how it was conducive to greater biting power, while the other alluding to how it was tailored to creating an enhanced airway. The recent assessment pursued by the researchers is leaning towards the latter hypothesis, with their study based on the 3D models (created with the help of CT scans) of 15 skulls – comprising 11 specimens of the Homo sapiens, three from Neanderthals, and finally one from an extinct human species known as Homo heidelbergensis. In a conclusion, the team reached the consensus that based on the comparative analysis, Neanderthals were simply able to take in more oxygen into their body without the need for using their mouths. As Professor Stephen Wroe, who led the study, said –

Our conclusion was that the distinctive, projecting Neanderthal face is an adaptation linked with an extreme, high energy lifestyle. It may be because Neanderthals were routinely involved in very strenuous activities, such as running down and killing large animals, or it may simply be that they needed to burn a lot of oxygen just to stay warm in their Ice Age habitats. Or it could be some combination of both.


Credit: UNE/Wroe

Now regarding the first hypothesis, the researchers did test out the biting prowess of the Neanderthal by running their mechanical simulations on the aforementioned reconstructed (digital) models. To their surprise, the scientists confirmed that Neanderthal skulls exhibited just as much strain when biting at the front teeth as did many modern humans. Simply put, according to the test, the ‘biting power’ of the Neanderthals was probably not a standout feature that could be associated with their physiognomy. As Prof. Wroe pointed out –

In fact at least some modern humans are arguably better suited to this role [of effective biting], using less muscle force to achieve the same bite force while developing less strain in the bone.


Credit: UNE/Wroe

On the other hand, the ‘big nose’ feature of the Neanderthals and the network of cavities that lay behind it does hint at the hypothesis of effective airways. To that end, the researchers made use of various techniques, like finite-element analysis and computational fluid dynamics, to determine how Neanderthals were simply better than the more primitive Homo heidelbergensis when it came to warming and even humidifying incoming air. In spite of this, modern humans are still better at warming the incoming cold air. However, the Neanderthals did ‘beat’ modern humans at getting more air in and out of their bodies through their noses, which resulted in overall efficient rates of breathing. As Prof. Wroe said –

Neanderthals looked very different to us. They were shorter, far more robust and muscular than your average modern human, and, perhaps most obviously, they had huge noses and long mid-faces. This projecting mid-face is a true Neanderthal novelty, a specialization which sets them apart, not just from us, but from their ancestors too. This characteristic, perhaps more than any other physical feature, separates Neanderthals from us. The evidence suggests that in life, Neanderthals lived very high-energy, extreme existences.

Interestingly enough, the physical features of the Neanderthals were also related to how they sounded. A squat vocal tract, deep rib-cage, heavy skull and finally a wide nasal cavity – all of these anatomical factors possibly played their part in what can be simply described as a ‘strange’ voice recreated in the video below – an episode of the Neanderthal – The Rebirth documentary by BBC. As for our part, we humbly raise our hats to the re-enactor himself (named Elliot) for keeping his composure while making what may seem as eccentric vocal effects.

The study was originally published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Source: The University of New England