Science News looks at broken bones – specifically, how modern bone breaks seem so different from the injuries we see in Neanderthal skeletons. Why should modern tree-climbing, skateboarding, snow-skiing humans be so different from our prehistoric cousins? The closest we get to the same kinds of injuries they suffered in the centuries of mammoth hunts and cave painting is when we’re in inflatable inner tubes being towed behind speedboats – or bumping into furniture:
This analysis illustrates just how little modern evidence reveals about ways in which our evolutionary relatives ended up so battered, said anthropologist Libby Cowgill of the University of Missouri in Columbia.
Her study, conducted with Missouri anthropologist James Bain, was inspired by an influential 1995 report that Neandertals, like modern rodeo riders, suffered lots of head and above-the-waist injuries and little hip and leg damage. Authors of the 1995 study explained their finding by suggesting that, unlike rodeo riders who get catapulted off bucking broncos, Neandertals’ hard knocks came during violent, up-close clashes with large prey.
A coauthor of the 1995 paper, anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, later questioned those conclusions in the December 2012 Journal of Archaeological Science. Trinkaus pointed out, for instance, that up-close clashes with members of their own species or with Homo sapiens also could have inflicted a lot of upper-body damage. Neandertals immobilized by lower-body injuries may have been left to die before reaching rock-shelters where most fossils have been found, he added. In that case, the limited sample of Neandertal fossils misleadingly portrays these Stone Age hominids as prone to upper-body fractures.
Activities that cause injuries most resembling the Neandertal pattern have no apparent relation to Stone Age behavior, Cowgill said. No one can accuse Neandertals of having practiced reckless water tubing or having suffered what Cowgill described as “unfortunate run-ins with tables.”
About 30 percent of Neandertals’ injuries affected the face and head, a rate far greater than that for nearly all modern activities, Cowgill said. Only diving board accidents produce a slightly higher proportion of face and head injuries than seen on Neandertal fossils.
Of 84 activities that resulted in bone fractures to 61,851 patients between January 2009 and December 2014, only 16 activities showed any statistical similarities to Neandertals’ injury patterns. Along with water tubing and table run-ins, accidents involving golf, lawn chairs and Frisbee and boomerang games produced somewhat Neandertal-like injury patterns.
The lesson here is that there are so many ways to hurt one’s noggin that it’s meaningless to compare injury patterns today with those of Neandertals or Stone Age humans, Trinkaus said. Neandertal injuries may not even reflect particular behaviors.