The figures of the Stone Age people, who became extinct about 40,000 years ago, were much more fragile than ours. In addition, a Neanderthal’s thumb would have been protruded from his hand at a much greater angle.
“If you were to shake hands with a Neanderthal, you would notice this difference,” said Ameline Bardo, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation in the United Kingdom.
“There would be confusion about where to place the thumb, and for a thumb fight I think you would win in terms of speed and movement!” she said via email.
The Neanderthals used their hands differently than we do, a new study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports has suggested. Our archaic relatives, lead author Bardo said, would have been more comfortable with “pinch grips” – the grip we use when holding tools with handles like a hammer.
To figure out how Neanderthals used their hands, Bardo and her colleagues took a unique approach.
Other studies have quantified how shapes in thumb bones vary in Neanderthals and modern humans, as well as other fossil human relatives. However, most research to date has only looked at the bones separately — until now.
Analysis of joint movement
The researchers used 3-D mapping to analyze the joints between the bones responsible for thumb movement – also called “the trapeziometacarpal complex” – of the remains of five Neanderthals. The scientists then compared the results with measurements of the remains of five early modern humans and 50 recent modern adults.
“Our study is new when we look at how the variation in the shapes and orientations of the different bones and joints relate to each other,” she said.
“Movement and loading of the thumb is only possible through these bones, as well as the ligaments and muscles, which work together, so they need to be studied together,” she said.
While their meatier hands might suggest a lack of dexterity, Neanderthals were certainly capable of using a precision grip – as if we were holding a pencil, Bardo said.
“The joint at the base of the thumb of Neanderthal fossils is flatter with a smaller area of contact between the bones, which is better suited for an extended thumb next to the side of the hand,” she explains. “This thumb pose suggests the regular use of powerful ‘squeeze’ grips.”
In contrast, human thumbs have joint surfaces that are generally larger and more curved, “which is an advantage in grasping objects between the pads of the finger and thumb,” she said.
The powerful pinch handle is said to have helped Neanderthals grab spears while hunting and use stone scrapers or knives to work wood or animal skins. It may have been more difficult for Homo neanderthalensis to use strong precision grips, such as using stone flakes between the pads of the finger and thumb to cut meat, Bardo said.
However, she noted that there is great variation among modern humans when it comes to agility – and that could have existed among Neanderthals as well.
“Their hand anatomy and archaeological record make it abundantly clear that Neanderthals were highly intelligent, sophisticated tool users, using many of the same tools as modern modern humans,” said Bardo.