Neanderthals Had Large Noses Because They Needed More Air Than Modern Humans, New Theory Reveals

All it takes to appreciate the value of breathing through a good nose is a bad cold. Neanderthals' bulky noses may have developed to ensure they had plenty of room to breathe, according to a new paper published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The paper used digital scans of skulls from Neanderthals and humans to model how biting and breathing shaped the structure of their faces. The scientists wanted to test a long-standing belief that Neanderthals' voluminous noses and bulging brows may have been side effects of dietary choices and their habit of grasping items with their teeth.

But instead, they found that the large nose was tied to the sheer amount of air Neanderthals were breathing, which they believe was a response to the cold conditions they faced.

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"The calorific demands of Neanderthals were huge compared with ours—they were moving around a lot, they probably had less efficient clothing and therefore they are having to burn a lot more of their body fat to keep warm," co-author Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, told The Guardian.

According to the new study, Neanderthals compensated in part by simply having larger nasal passages. But the scientists also found that they seemed to be able to breathe more air through their noses faster—sort of like panting, but through the nose rather than the mouth. That's valuable because the nose warms and cleans air.

A molding of a Neanderthal man face displayed for the Neanderthal exhibition at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris. Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

In contrast, the team found no evidence that Neanderthals would have been able to bite any better than we do. In fact, modern humans seem to top our extinct relatives on this front.

"A surprising result of our simulations was that modern humans can bite hard—and we do it using weaker jaw muscles," co-author Stephen Wroe, a paleontologist at the University of New England, Australia, told The Guardian. "Turns out we modern humans are very efficient biters."