for National Geographic News
A new study suggests Neandertals could touch the tips of their thumb and index finger, and may have been as dexterous as modern humans.
The findings are significant because they could help researchers in their quest to explain why Neandertals died out 28,000 years ago.
"One theory suggested Neandertals were hampered by their hand movements and couldn't make the tools necessary to survive," said Wesley Niewoehner of California State University in San Bernardino, who led the study. "But Neandertals didn't lag behind modern humans in terms of manual skills, so the explanation for why they died out is much more complex than that."
Many experts already suspected that Neandertals were in fact highly dexterous. But previous studies focused on individual bones or fingers. "No one had ever looked at the Neandertal hand as a whole," said Niewoehner.
Researchers took resin casts of fossil bones found at La Ferrassie, France, which date back 70,000 years, and scanned them with a laser to make a computer model. The process is similar to what animators do when they take real-world animals and turn them into computer objects.
Using different software, the researchers identified the center of the joints of the thumb and index finger bones and entered degrees of movement. The parameters used for this movement were very conservative.
"Even with this conservative approach, the thumb and index finger could clearly touch," said Niewoehner. Such a precision grip can only be achieved by humans and some apes.
Neandertals lived in Europe and some parts of Asia from 300,000 years ago, until the last of them disappeared on the Iberian Peninsula of present-day Spain and Portugal about 28,000 years ago. Modern humans arose in Africa less than 200,000 years ago and appeared in great numbers in Europe, starting about 40,000 years ago.
One main difference between the Neandertals and the Cro-Magnon was the sophistication of tools made and used.
The tools of the Neandertals are called Mousterian, named after the site in France where they were found. They are "flake-based," which means the Neandertals hacked off pieces of a rock to make tools used for butchering animals, scraping hide, and working wood.
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