UCL News


Neanderthals sprinted in Ice Age woodlands

29 January 2019

Neanderthals lived in much warmer climates than previously thought, with bodies that supported sprinting rather than distance running according to a UCL and Bournemouth University study.

A Boreal Forest

The finding challenges the assumption that Neanderthals were a branch of the human family tree that was specifically adapted to cold, open tundra-like environments.

Published today in Quaternary Science Reviews, new evidence shows that Neanderthals occupied warmer woodlands, where short bursts of speed would have been favoured for ambush and close-quarter hunting. Neanderthal genomes also carried a higher proportion of gene variants associated with power sports performance than living humans.

Neanderthals lived in Europe and parts of Asia from around 300,000 years ago until around 40,000 years ago, when they went extinct. Their fossil remains were often associated with Ice Age mammals like mammoths, woolly rhinos, horses and reindeer. Additionally, they had a range of physical features including short limbs, large nasal cavity and a large torso, which have traditionally been seen as adaptations to cold environments.

But now, these interpretations are being challenged with new research showing that this isn’t necessarily the case. Dr John Stewart, an Associate Professor at Bournemouth University, led the study and said: “A closer look at the layers in which their fossils are found suggest Neanderthals actually lived at the same times and places as animals that are associated with warmer, woodland ecologies.

“In such an environment, a hunting strategy based on short bursts of power locomotion would be favoured. This led me to think about the physiques of modern elite athletes. The Neanderthal build is definitely more Usain Bolt than Mo Farah, more muscle than lean, and so perhaps more power sprint than endurance jog.”

These findings have been supported by geneticist colleagues Dr Yoan Diekmann, Professor Hugh Montgomery and Professor Mark Thomas at UCL. They examined genetic variants that previous studies had found to be more common in elite power or sprint athletes.

Dr Yoan Diekmann (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment) said: “We found that the majority of these power-associated genetic variants were typically more common in Neanderthals than in humans today, who are known to be more endurance adapted, reflecting their generally more slender builds.”

Co-author Professor Mark Thomas (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment) added: “We are only scratching the surface of Neanderthal ecology, and it is always possibly that other factors could explain the Neanderthal physique. But the convergence of paleoanthropological and genetic evidence in this case is rather encouraging. Certainly, the approach we have taken signposts a valuable avenue for future research.”



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Bex Caygill

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Email: r.caygill [at] ucl.ac.uk