Dexterous Neanderthals: Our Ancient Relatives Had the Hands of Precision Workers

A stock image illustrates an ancient person. Researchers believe Neanderthals did not only use brute force in their daily tasks. Getty Images

Think of a Neanderthal and you'll probably picture a hairy and heavy-handed caveman. But our ancestors were more dexterous than we give them credit for according to scientists.

Neanderthals had robust hand bones with large muscle attachments, so it is widely believed the early humans who populated Western Eurasia between 40,000 to 400,000 years ago relied on their strength to complete daily tasks, as they were not yet advanced enough to do otherwise. This theory pits the "power grip" of Neanderthals against the "precision grip" of modern humans.

But a study published in the journal Science Advances provides evidence to the contrary. Neanderthals made and used cordage, for instance, produced glue to make hafted tools and used small stone implements, which likely required fine manipulations of their hands, study author Professor Katerina Harvati, head of Paleoanthropology at the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment, Germany, told Newsweek.

The team arrived at their conclusion by 3D scanning the fossilized skeletons of six Neanderthal specimens, specifically the muscle attachments where the tissue links to the bone. Unlike previous studies, the researchers analyzed muscle groups as a whole rather than single muscles in order to reveal how these early humans may have repeatedly used their hands.

A photo taken on July 2, 2008 in Eyzies-de-Tayac, Dordogne, shows a model representing a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory. Researchers believe early humans were more dexterous that previously believed. PIERRE ANDRIEU/AFP/Getty Images

They then corroborated their findings by assessing a collection of 45 19th-century skeletons at the Basel Spital Cemetery collection of the Natural History Museum, Switzerland. The collection documents the deceased person's profession, and provides clues as to how they may have also used their hands on a daily basis long-term.

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Dr. Alexandros-Fotios Karakostis, the study's first author, told Newsweek the team made an unexpected discovery. "All Neanderthal hand bones examined in our study habitually performed precision grips, while none was compatible with a habitual power grip pattern," he said.

"This finding contradicts the previous assumptions about Neanderthal behavior, and reconciles the archeological evidence with that from the fossil bone anatomy itself."

However, as is the case with many fossil studies, the small sample sizes of Neanderthals and early modern humans can present an obstacle to the accuracy of the conclusion, he said. And the team focused on muscle groups acting together, although complete hand skeletons are relatively rare.

"That being said, and despite the small sample, we feel that our results on Neanderthals habitually performing precision grips are very strong: All individuals examined, spanning a large geographic and temporal range, showed this pattern, contrary to our expectation for habitual power grasping," she said.

While this study illuminated how Neanderthals used their hands, a separate paper published earlier this year delved into how they may have gone extinct.

Research investigating the stalagmites of Romania suggested cold weather may have killed off our ancestors. The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Vasile Ersek, senior lecturer in physical geography at Northumbria University and author of the study, explained at the time: "For many years we have wondered what could have caused their demise. Were they pushed 'over the edge' by the arrival of modern humans, or were other factors involved?"

"Our study suggests that climate change may have had an important role in the Neanderthal extinction."