We Don't Use Our Thumbs the Way Neanderthals Did

Fossils suggest they regularly gripped handled tools
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 27, 2020 9:51 AM CST
Neanderthal Thumbs Weren't Quite the Same as Ours
Some art featuring hands, like this image from the El?Castillo?cave in Spain, is thought to pre-date Homo sapiens.   (Wikimedia/Cantabria Government)

If you happen to travel back in time and encounter an angry Neanderthal, be sure to request a thumb war, rather than a full-blown one. According to new research, Neanderthals' hands were different than our own, with a thumb that stuck out at a wider angle than what you see when looking at your own hand. "If you were to shake a Neanderthal hand you would notice this difference ... There would be confusion over where to place the thumb," says Ameline Bardo, lead author of the first study to compare the hand bones and joints of Neanderthals with those of modern humans, per CNN. In a thumb war, modern humans would prevail "in terms of speed and movement," Bardo adds. Bardo worked with colleagues to compare the hand bones of five Neanderthals with those of five early Homo sapiens and 50 recent modern people.

The researchers found "the joint at the base of the thumb of the Neanderthal fossils is flatter with a smaller contact surface between the bones, which is better suited to an extended thumb positioned alongside the side of the hand." This suggests Neanderthals were adept at using a power grip, which a press release explains is one "where objects are held like a hammer, between the fingers and the palm with the thumb directing force." This may indicate the regular use of the kind of grip one would use on a handled tool, reads the study published Thursday in Scientific Reports. Researchers say Neanderthals could've pulled off the precision grips we use today when holding objects between our fingertip and thumb, but with difficulty. Researchers next hope to compare Neanderthal hand bones with specific tools they might've used, reports Inverse. (More Neanderthals stories.)

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