April 18, 2021 • 2 min
Neanderthals could hold objects between finger and thumb like we would hold a pen because their hands were more nimble, able to move quickly and easily. Recent findings suggest that Neanderthals were able to perform skillful tasks like threading sea shells onto string to make jewellery. These activities were hard to explain if they were clumsy. Neanderthal hand bones were much chunkier than ours, implying a lack of fine control. Previous studies suggested Neanderthals were unable to perform a 'precision grip' with finger and thumb. Instead, they were thought to use a 'power grip' involving their whole fist like small children holding crayons. To find out how Neanderthals used their hands, Katerina Harvati at the University of Tübingen, Germany studied 3D scan of 'entheses': the points on the bones where muscles were attached. A precision grip uses a different set of muscles to a power grip, and those muscles that get used more result in larger entheses. Harvati's team previously showed this by studying modern humans having done different jobs. They examined the hand entheses of Neanderthals and early modern humans. The Neanderthals spent most of their time using precision grips, while the early modern humans used both precision and power grips. "Our study reconciles the archaeological with the anatomical fossil evidence," says Harvati. "It was previously proposed Neanderthals relied on force for their manual activities", but this perception "was at odds with mounting archaeological evidence for sophisticated cultural behaviour of Neanderthals".