A group of hominids living at the same time and place as Neandertals were better at gripping tools with handles, according to new research. The subtle differences may have given the hominids an evolutionary advantage over their Neandertal neighbors. While it doesn't prove that Neandertals were technologically inferior, the finding may encourage archaeologists to analyze stone tools in a new way.
About 100,000 years ago, both Neandertals and Skhul/Qafzah hominids (named for the sites where their remains were found) roamed what is now Israel. The Neandertals died out, but many scientists believe that the hominids from that region were ancestors of modern humans. The question is, what allowed the hominids to succeed? Skeletal remains hint that Neandertals used more brute strength (Neandertals were more muscular and had stronger arm bones), but both groups left behind the same tools. Scientists have been nagged by the fact that the artifacts aren't consistent with the apparent behavioral differences implied by the skeletons.
To get a handle on things, paleoanthropologist Wesley Niewoehner of the University of New Mexico analyzed the hand bones of Skhul/Qafzah hominids and compared them to Neandertal hand bones. He created three-dimensional computer models of the bones and discovered that the hominid hands resembled those of later humans from the Upper Paleolithic era, he reports in the 6 February issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Furthermore, the shape of the bones, which reflect the forces that impact the hand, indicates that Skhul/Qafzah hominids were likely to hold tools with a handle; their Neandertal neighbors, in contrast, tended to hold stone tools in the palms of their hands.
The work "isn't the rosetta stone" of understanding differences in tool use between Neandertals and Skhul/Qafzah hominids, says paleoanthropologist Steven Churchill of Duke University, "but it puts another piece of the puzzle in place." He hopes that the work will encourage archaeologists to study tools in new ways that will reveal more about the behavior of the user. Traditional ways of analyzing tools, Churchill says, are "so crude that there may be important differences that we're just missing."
Niewoehner's dissertation defense page