(Comparison of Neanderthal and Modern Human skeletons. Credit: K. Mowbray, Reconstruction: G. Sawyer and B. Maley, Copyright: Ian Tattersall)
In a short sprint, the Neanderthal might have had a chance, but most fit humans would always win longer races, suggests new research accepted for publication in the Journal of Human Evolution.
Anthropologist David Raichlen of the University of Arizona and his colleagues determined that our modern human ancestors were better runners. The researchers did this by studying the hominids’ fossilized remains.
Recent research suggests that the energy cost of running at a given speed is strongly related to the length of certain limb bones. The longer these bones (Achilles tendon moment arm and calcaneal tuber from thecalcaneus) are, the more energy it takes for the individual to run.
The scientists’ measurements of such bones determined that Neanderthals were lousy at endurance and distance running when compared to modern humans. The sturdy Neanderthal bones, however, were built for long-distance walking and strength.
“Endurance running is generally thought to be beneficial for gaining access to meat in hot environments, where hominins could have used pursuit hunting to run prey taxa into hyperthermia,” Raichlen and his team conclude. “We hypothesize that endurance running performance may have been reduced in Neanderthals because they lived in cold climates.”
(Marathon runners; Credit: Danielito)
Since there is an inherent trade-off between speed and strength in species throughout the animal kingdom, it is likely that Neanderthals were built more for brawn, with humans evolving lighter, more aerodynamic bodies for running. (This doesn’t take into account food consumption and other behavioral factors that can add heft.)
A hypotheical Summer Olympics featuring both Neanderthals and humans would have certainly been memorable, with Neanderthals probably acing events like wrestling, rowing and archery, and humans winning cycling, triathlon and marathon competitions.
In the real-life battle for survival, running and endurance must have won out for prehistoric humans, even when they encountered Neanderthals in Europe, but why? Hopefully future studies can shed further light on this present mystery.