With all the attention given to the study of Neanderthals over the years, you’d think by now we’d know everything that made these early humans different from us. But paleoanthropologists Ian Tattersall, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Jeffrey Schwartz, of the University of Pittsburgh, have found something new in the Neanderthal nose. When we started this work, says Tattersall, we thought, ‘My God, people have been looking at Neanderthals for well over 100 years. How could we possibly find anything they haven’t noticed?’
One of the reasons may be that the unique nasal features they discovered aren’t preserved in most Neanderthal skulls. Of the 20 Neanderthal skulls the anthropologists looked at, they found the structures in only eight--the relevant parts of the nasal sections of the other skulls had been destroyed. But in those eight, Schwartz and Tattersall saw two triangular bony projections jutting into the front of the nasal cavity from either side. They have not found these features in any modern human skulls or in the skulls of other ancient human ancestors.
Jeffrey Laitman, an anatomist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York who has been studying Neanderthal anatomy, thinks the bony structures probably helped Neanderthals breathe the cold air of Ice Age Europe. The jutting projections, Laitman suggests, could have provided more surface area on which to lay down mucosal coverings to warm and humidify cold, dry air before it reached the throat and lungs. Previous studies have suggested that the large sinus cavities of Neanderthals served a similar function.
Laitman thinks that Neanderthals breathed more through their noses than modern humans do. From reconstructions of their upper respiratory tract, he has proposed that the Neanderthal larynx was higher up in the throat than it is in modern humans. This probably would have constricted the area behind the mouth, preventing Neanderthals from gulping in cold air and drying out the delicate tissue of the throat and lungs. A high larynx, says Laitman, also suggests that Neanderthals couldn’t make the same range of sounds that we can, since a lower larynx allows for a larger sound-modifying airspace above it.
Tattersall and Schwartz believe that their discovery of yet another basic difference in Neanderthal anatomy supports the view that Neanderthals and modern humans are separate species. In fact, they say, Neanderthal nasal anatomy not only sets Neanderthals apart from other humans but is unique among all primates.
Milford Wolpoff, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, bluntly disagrees with Tattersall’s interpretation. They’re very intelligent scientists, but they’re wrong. The differences they found show that Neanderthals are a race of human beings, Wolpoff says. All races have features that are distinctive.
In reply, Tattersall says that the nasal structures he and Schwartz discovered lie beyond the range of variations you would expect to find within a single species. He shrugs off opposing arguments, saying it would take nothing short of a nuclear explosion to convince many anthropologists that Neanderthals should be classified as a separate species. Some people still have a notion that Neanderthals ought to be explained as some weird variation of species that we know today, Tattersall says. Paleoanthropologists have had a lot of trouble letting go of this notion, but they should. Humans are no different from other living forms in having an evolutionary history of diversification.
Issues of classification aside, the Neanderthals’ highly specialized noses could have been a drawback once Europe’s climate warmed. In my work, says Laitman, we’re acutely aware that sinus infections can be devastating. In warm weather, a cavernous, sticky sinus might have been fertile ground for infection. I wonder what type of pressure Neanderthals would have been under, with absolutely huge sinus systems. How would that relate to upper respiratory infections? Could that have been a great problem for them? These are all very tantalizing questions.