Steroid-fueled Neanderthals?

Posted on July 7, 2010

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Prehistoric man apparently boasted a rock-hard body, including an overdeveloped right arm that would make Popeye jealous.

Olive Oyl,your hero is waiting…

The best line in this New York Daily News story is this:

Simply put, the Neanderthal body was brimming with natural steroids.

Really? add a gratuitous reference to “girlie-men”, and the story itself appears to be “brimming with steroids”. But not anywhere near as much as the original article in Discovery News, that starts:

Remains of an early Neanderthal with a super strong arm suggest that Neanderthal fellows were heavily pumped up on male hormones, possessing a hormonal status unlike anything that exists in humans today…

Quoting Russian archaeologist Maria Mednikova, the NY Daily News says the new vision of Neanderthal as a muscular Popeye on the steppes is based on study of a single arm bone that Discovery News specifies is a humerus. The method of sex determination is not cited in either article. In 2005, John Albanese, Hugo Cardoso, and Shelley Saunders published an article in Journal of Archaeological Science that experimentally determined that accurate sex assignment based on the humerus would be possible in 83–96% of cases, if the sample used in a new population was greater than 40 individuals, with a sex ratio less than 1.5:1.

All of which begs the question: how do we know about that rock-hard flesh, and those steroids fueling it?

No surprise here: we don’t.

The story is actually about how upper body musculature marked Neanderthal skeletons, and in particular, the  asymmetry between the arms of male Neanderthals. Mednikova argues that these hunters used spears as direct thrusting weapons, “giving his dominant arm, usually the right one, an intense workout”.

So what we have here is an interesting case of work-related skeletal development. Discovery News quotes Mednikova as saying

compared to anatomically modern humans, (both male and female Neanderthals) had a larger muscle mass and experienced a higher loading on the upper extremity…

And the steroids? well, that’s complicated. There is a steroid story here, but not the one the reporters imagined, Neanderthal males in workouts fueled by steroids achieving those ripped bodies.

Mendikova says that the Neanderthal diet was so meat-rich that it was made up “nearly exclusively of proteins and lipids,” “which must have affected their hormones and bones”. But some of their findings on the bone mineralization of the single male they studied contradict their expectations of reduced mineralization associated with high steroid levels.  Discovery News explains:

The fossil displays an unusual mixture of thickened walls with narrow bone marrow region cavities. This, according to the scientists, suggests “intense mineralization” provided for the strong, sturdy bone structure, with the inner narrowness “based on a stronger shaft architecture requiring much less mineralization.”

“Neanderthals were characterized not only by peculiar biomechanical adaptations, but also by a specific hormonal condition which has no close parallels among modern human hormonal conditions either normal or pathological.”

And that goes for the females, not just the males. Mednikova says the “female Neanderthals were strong, but more evenly muscular in both arms”. Or, following Discovery News again, “Neanderthal females weren’t delicate creatures either”.

No girlie men, perhaps; but maybe some manly girls. Move along, Olive Oyl.

To me, the most intriguing thing here is actually something else, a phrase dropped in passing: “his dominant arm, usually the right one”.

How do we know Neanderthals were normally right-handed? To quote Don Glass of Indiana Public Media, “the answer is inside Neanderthal’s mouth”. Based on which side of the mouth showed scratches on the outside of the teeth from implements using in eating, researchers propose that 90% of Neanderthals were right handed, about the same as today.

Something we share: lefties (and those of us who should have been lefties but were forced to write with the right hand) were a minority in both species. Some things really are universal.