Water tubing accidents, table run-ins cause Neandertal-like injuries

Analysis shows that comparing ancient and modern bone breaks yields little insight into hominids’ everyday dangers


NOT NEANDERTALS  Among a broad range of sports activities, water tubing produces an excess of upper-body injuries most similar to the pattern seen on Neandertal fossils, researchers say. This finding highlights the futility of trying to understand Stone Age behavior with comparisons with modern pursuits.

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NEW ORLEANS — Rodeo riders’ recent scientific reputation, as the best modern examples of a Neandertal pattern of excess head knocks, has taken a tumble. Taking their place: People who like to be dragged behind powerboats on big inner tubes, among others.

An exhaustive comparison of Neandertals’ injuries to those of people today finds that water tubing and mishaps involving tables, not rodeo riding, result in top-heavy fracture patterns most similar to those observed on Neandertal fossils. This analysis illustrates just how little modern evidence reveals about ways in which our evolutionary relatives ended up so battered, said anthropologist Libby Cowgill of the University of Missouri in Columbia. She presented data highlighting the mystery of Neandertals’ many preserved bone fractures on April 22 at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

Her study, conducted with Missouri anthropologist James Bain, was inspired by an influential 1995 report that Neandertals, like modern rodeo riders, suffered lots of head and above-the-waist injuries and little hip and leg damage. Authors of the 1995 study explained their finding by suggesting that, unlike rodeo riders who get catapulted off bucking broncos, Neandertals’ hard knocks came during violent, up-close clashes with large prey.

A coauthor of the 1995 paper, anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, later questioned those conclusions in the December 2012 Journal of Archaeological Science. Trinkaus pointed out, for instance, that up-close clashes with members of their own species or with Homo sapiens also could have inflicted a lot of upper-body damage. Neandertals immobilized by lower-body injuries may have been left to die before reaching rock-shelters where most fossils have been found, he added. In that case, the limited sample of Neandertal fossils misleadingly portrays these Stone Age hominids as prone to upper-body fractures.

Trinkaus’ doubts were well placed. Neandertals’ pattern of bone fractures differs from that produced by a wide variety of present-day activities, including rodeo riding, Cowgill reported. Activities that cause injuries most resembling the Neandertal pattern have no apparent relation to Stone Age behavior, Cowgill said. No one can accuse Neandertals of having practiced reckless water tubing or having suffered what Cowgill described as “unfortunate run-ins with tables.”

About 30 percent of Neandertals’ injuries affected the face and head, a rate far greater than that for nearly all modern activities, Cowgill said. Only diving board accidents produce a slightly higher proportion of face and head injuries than seen on Neandertal fossils.

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In a U.S. sample of modern-day injuries, Cowgill and Bain looked specifically at bone fractures, not at a broader range of skeletal injuries, including signs of degenerative bone disease, considered in the 1995 study. That may help to explain why the rodeo-rider comparison doesn’t hold up anymore: The new study found fewer skull injuries and substantially more hand wounds among rodeo riders than reported for them in the original paper.

Fracture data came from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which compiles information from a national sample of hospitals on injuries from consumer products and sports activities. Of 84 activities that resulted in bone fractures to 61,851 patients between January 2009 and December 2014, only 16 activities showed any statistical similarities to Neandertals’ injury patterns. Along with water tubing and table run-ins, accidents involving golf, lawn chairs and Frisbee and boomerang games produced somewhat Neandertal-like injury patterns.

The lesson here is that there are so many ways to hurt one’s noggin that it’s meaningless to compare injury patterns today with those of Neandertals or Stone Age humans, Trinkaus said. Neandertal injuries may not even reflect particular behaviors. Fractures that occurred during fossilization, as well as greater susceptibility of the braincase — relative to other body parts — to minor dents and dings, could have contributed to Neandertals’ head wounds, Trinkaus suggested.

“The rodeo-rider idea was a great one 20-plus years ago, but we have moved beyond it,” Trinkaus said.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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