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Long face of Neanderthal man a myth, says study

Contrary to an old belief that Neanderthals had awfully long faces, new proof claims that modern humans are the "odd ones out" in case of facial lengths.

tech reviews Updated: Jun 26, 2003 13:11 IST

New scientific evidence challenges a common perception that Neanderthals had exceptionally long faces and has thrown up the new idea that modern humans are the "odd ones out" when it comes to facial lengths.

A report authored by Erik Trinkaus at Washington University in St. Louis, is based on two critical skull measurements on fossilized specimens and establishes a baseline for future anthropologists to categorize evolutionary patterns as being ancestral or derived.

"Basically, the issue is whether the 'big' Neanderthal face is simply something they inherited from their ancestors, or whether it is something that is uniquely derived for them, something that makes them divergent in human evolution," Trinkaus said.

After compiling the data for different groups of hominids, the study concluded that the Neanderthal's overall facial projection was average for a Pleistocene epoch sample and was similar to or even modestly reduced from their non-Neanderthal archaic predecessors.

He also noted that their size was only moderately greater than those of early modern humans, but principally contrasted with recent humans of today. Thus, from an evolutionary standpoint, there was nothing uniquely derived about Neanderthal face lengths.

Still, the study gives several possible explanations for the misconception. First, the majority of the more complete Neanderthal skulls that anthropologists have thus far unearthed happen to be those of large males, each of whose facial length scales with the rest of their body.

For most of the last century, Neanderthals have been compared primarily with recent humans and not to their own predecessors. And quite simply, despite major discoveries over the last 40 years, no one had previously published a comprehensive study comparing Neanderthal facial lengths to both recent humans and earlier ancestors.

First Published: Jun 18, 2003 03:18 IST