Researchers discover Neanderthals and swimmers have something in common

As scientists continue to intensively study Neanderthals, we are learning even more about them and how they relate to us. And now even surfers have something in common with our close relatives.

As we all know, surfers are frequently in the water waiting for that next big wave to ride on. As a result they often develop what is known as surfer’s ear.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information:

Surfer’s ear, or exostoses of the external auditory canal, is a slowly progressive disease from benign bone growth as a result of chronic cold water exposure. It is a condition most commonly associated with surfing but seen in anyone repeatedly exposed to cold water such as swimmers, divers, kayakers, and participants of other maritime activities. Usually asymptomatic, external auditory exostoses (EAE) can cause symptoms such as hearing loss, repeated infections, otorrhea, ear fullness, and cerumen impaction. Treatment usually involves medical management but may include surgery if symptoms become severe.

Surfer’s ear. You can see the developed growth at the top. Image via Wikimedia.

Well, it turns out that while Neanderthals were not surfers, an analysis of 23 Neanderthal samples shows that they also developed the condition by spending more time in the water than we previously thought.

A study conducted by Washington University paleoanthropologist Erik Trinkaus and his University of Bordeaux colleagues Sebastien Villotte and Mathilde Samsel looked at 77 preserved ear canals from the remains of early humans and Neanderthals. And while external auditory exostoses have been previously observed before in ancient human remains, this is the first focused study of them. Their results have been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

“External auditory exostoses (EAE) have been noted among the Neandertals and a few other Pleistocene humans, but until recently they have been discussed primary as minor pathological lesions with possible auditory consequences,” the study notes. “An assessment of available western Eurasian late Middle and Late Pleistocene human temporal bones with sufficiently preserved auditory canals provides modest levels of EAE among late Middle Pleistocene archaic humans and early modern humans. The Neandertals, however, exhibit an exceptionally high level of EAE.”

While the ear canals of early modern humans are comparable to those of living humans today, the Neanderthals seem to have had a higher frequency of developing surfer’s ear, suggesting that they spent more time in aquatic environments than once believed, and half of the Neanderthal samples showed signs of surfer’s ear because of it.

Examples of external auditory exostoses (EAE) among early modern human specimens. Image via PLOS ONE.

“The Early/Mid Upper Paleolithic frequency is nonetheless high for a high latitude sample under interpleniglacial conditions,” the study says. “Given the strong etiological and environmental associations of EAE development with exposure to cold water and/or damp wind chill, the high frequency of EAE among the Neandertals implies frequent aquatic resource exploitation, more frequent than the archeological and stable isotopic evidence for Middle Paleolithic/Neandertal littoral and freshwater resource foraging implies. As such, the Neandertal data parallel a similar pattern evident in eastern Eurasian archaic humans. Yet, factors in addition to cold water/wind exposure may well have contributed to their high EAE frequencies.”

Examples of external auditory exostoses (EAE) among Neanderthal specimens. Image via PLOS ONE.

Indeed, the study goes on to point out that there is a genetic component, but it’s unknown if that’s the reason why Neanderthals developed it or if they developed it by swimming for their food on a day to day basis to survive. That’s why the researchers posit that multiple factors are the cause.

There is a strong, but not deterministic, relationship between cold water exposure (especially when associated with wind chill) and the prevalence of EAE. It remains possible that there is an inherited predisposition to developing EAE. It is reflected in differential vasodilation susceptibility of the auditory canal to cold water irrigation, found experimentally in rodents and in the varying degrees of individual EAE development evident in aquatic sport samples subjected to similar environmental conditions. Yet, it is unknown whether there are populational differences in EAE susceptibility, and it appears likely that recent human population differences in EAE are primarily related to environment and behavior.

The frequency of EAE…is nonetheless moderately high for a sample that should have been paleoclimatically similar to recent human high latitude populations. It remains likely that the high level of EAE among the Neandertals, and the E/MUP samples given its paleoenvironmental context, is due in part to the exploitation of aquatic resources. However, the Neandertal frequency is at the upper limits of recent human population values and is matched only by those who experienced cold water maritime climates. It is therefore likely that, as with eastern Eurasian later archaic humans, multiple factors were involved in their abundance of EAE.

Trinkaus say that this study should change the way we look at Neanderthals and that they deserve more credit than they receive because they are often considered as being less intelligent and less skilled than Homosapiens, which is our species.

“An exceptionally high frequency of external auditory exostoses among the Neanderthals, and a more modest level among high latitude earlier Upper Paleolithic modern humans, indicate a higher frequency of aquatic resource exploitation among both groups of humans than is suggested by the archeological record,” Trinkaus told CNN. “In particular, it reinforces a number of arguments and sources of data to argue for a level of adaptability and flexibility and capability among the Neanderthals, which has been denied them by some people in the field, which basically came down to ‘How can you say these were made by Neanderthals? We know they’re too dumb to do that.’ There are going to be people who dismiss it and say: ‘How can you go from bony growths in the ear to Neanderthal foraging ability?'”

Indeed, for too long, many experts have dismissed Neanderthals as an unintelligent and incapable species. But other recent discoveries strongly suggest that the opposite is true and that we may have more in common than we realize.

For example, recent excavations have revealed that Neanderthals constructed tools using a resin glue that had to be warmed by fire, suggesting they regularly made fire and could make multi-piece tools. They also recycled and reused this resin.

The Neanderthals also created art, which was found in a cave in Spain, that was such a good example that some experts thought it couldn’t have been made by them.

They also made weapons to kill animals from a distance. And another recent excavation found that Neanderthals were not the cave dwellers scientists thought they were. Instead, some actually traveled a distance to a campsite where they camped under the stars and used as a base from which to hunt and gather.

Like hunting, Neanderthals must have had knowledge that helped them catch seafood and freshwater fish.

“You have to be able to have a certain minimal level of technology, you need to be able to know when the fish are going to be coming up the rivers or going along the coast—it’s a fairly elaborate process,” Trinkhaus said.

Trinkaus is urging the scientific community to dig deeper when studying Neanderthals.

“We’re going beyond whether we share their genes, or whether they gave rise to us, to ‘let’s try to understand them as people,'” he said.

So, they may not have been surfers, but Neanderthals had the knowledge and the skill to take advantage of the wildlife resources found in bodies of water, so much so, that they developed surfer’s ear. It’s something modern humans do to this very day. Who knows, maybe Neanderthals even passed on this knowledge and skills to early modern humans. As long as we continue to dig deeper to understand them, we may find out.

As an interesting sidenote: A former pastry chef, Guido Camia, is now making a living offering “Neanderthal survival courses” in the Italian Alps. He’s featured in our image for this article. See the video below from AFP news agency:

Featured Image: Screenshot via YouTube

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