Cold weather and the Neanderthal nose

Wednesday 19th Jan 2011 by theWeather Club

Neanderthals have never had the best PR. For much of anthropological history they have been dismissed as nasty, brutish and short. They were seen as ape-like creatures of limited intelligence, scratching out a living in the frozen landscapes of the long northern winters. However in recent years this view has changed somewhat – at least in scientific circles. They have been shown to be smarter than first thought, had a more sophisticated diet, there is even evidence of them copying the ornaments worn by modern humans who moved into Neanderthal territories, something requiring a mental dexterity that would have been that would have been considered impossible by anthropologists a generation ago. But one thing has not changed - they are not seen as the prettiest of creatures. Or to put it another way they had faces only a mother could love. But they had an excuse for that.

Scientists have long explained the bulbous noses and jutting foreheads of Neanderthals as an adaptation to the climate. Millennia of living in freezing weather temperatures meant that Neanderthals had adapted to the conditions that gripped Europe during the last Ice Age. They believed that enlarged sinuses would have helped to warm the air as it was inhaled, just one of the many adaptations necessary to living in the cold.

But new research is challenging this view. Three dimensional scans and X-ray images of Neanderthal skulls has shown that their sinuses were no bigger than modern humans who evolved in more temperate climates. They say this shows that temperature played no role in the size of Neanderthal noses. The researchers behind the study claim the findings throw other assumed cold weather adaptations into doubt and suggest the possibility that Neanderthals did not evolve to survive in the harsh frozen tundra of Europe at all.

Dr Todd Rae, an evolutionary anthropologist at Roehampton University in London, told reporters: "The view that Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging cave men who scraped a living by hunting large mammals on the frozen wastes of the tundra has been around since they were first discovered because they were known to live at a time when Europe was in the grip of the last Glacial Age. As a result a lot of their physical traits have been attributed as adaptations that helped them live in the cold, even when it doesn't make any sense. The picture of them as more of a temperate climate creature than one that lived in the cold fits the data much better." He believes that this suggests they were actually based in small warmer enclaves within the vast frozen wilderness.

So not so stupid and not so brutish, but still not so pretty. Then again with beauty being in the eye of the beholder, a slight twist in evolutionary fate could have had them staring at computer screens declaring, "Yea Gods! Those small-nosed Homo-Sapiens were hideous - probably why they didn't make the evolutionary cut."