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22 January 2011
Neanderthal nose myth dispelled

For over 150 years it has been believed that Neanderthal man had developed a larger nose to help him warm inhaled air in very cold periods. This is despite the fact that modern humans, like the Inuits and other Arctic animals, do not have these enlarged sinuses. Recent research has now dispelled this myth, with some interesting conclusions.
     The research team from Roehampton University in the UK was lead by Dr Todd Rae, from their Centre for Research in Evolutionary Anthropology. The research was based on the comparison of several Neanderthal skulls (older than 26,000 BCE) and modern Homo Sapiens skulls dating from 500 BCE to 1700 BCE (to prevent distortion from modern living conditions such as central heating & air conditioning). The team worked in conjunction with other researchers from the Ernst-Moritz-Arndt Universitat Griefswald in Germany and the Natural History Museum in London, UK. The results showed that, although the Neanderthal skulls were larger overall, the proportion of the nasal cavity to the skull size was the same in both species, so no special adaptations were apparent. This has led to a re-think on the habitat of Neanderthal man, long thought to have inhabited frozen tundra, and the reasons for them dying out.
     Dr Rae is quoted as saying "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".
     So Neanderthal man is now thought to have lived in more temperate areas and may have been isolated in groups too small to survive as the glaciation pushed further south.

Edited from LiveScience (14 January 2011), PhysOrg (17 January 2011), The Telegraph (19 January 2011)

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