Neanderthal spines could explain our back pain

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Neanderthals are not distinct from modern humans. Like them, modern humans exhibit lumbar lordosis, a ventral convexity of the lower back that counteracts the kyphotic curve and contributes to the sinusoidal curvature of the human spine.

This configuration evolved to balance and stabilize the upright trunk on two legs and dissipate loads through the spine, pelvis, and lower extremities during bipedal posture and locomotion.

Over time, particularly after the onset of industrialization in the late 19th century, an increase in wedging has been observed in the lower spine of humans today. This change may be linked to upper back pain and other back-related conditions.

A team of anthropologists has suggested that examining the spines of Neanderthals could explain the back pain experienced by humans today.

Previous research has shown that people – in urban areas and especially in “closed shop” environments where employees maintain tedious and painful work postures – are more likely to experience lower back pain. Scientists have mainly examined the spines of humans who lived in the post-industrial era. Therefore, they erroneously concluded that the formation of the spine is due to evolutionary development rather than changed living and working conditions.

In this new study, scientists examined both the pre-industrial and post-industrial spines of modern male and female humans to address this possibility. They obtained a sample of over 300 spines, totaling over 1,600 vertebrae, as well as samples of Neanderthal spines.

They found that the spines of post-industrial people showed more lumbar wedging than those of pre-industrial people. The spines of Neanderthals were more different from those of post-industrial people, but not from those of pre-industrial people.

More importantly, no significant differences were found to relate geography within samples from the same era.

Scott Williams, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at New York University, noted, “A pre-industrial vs. post-industrial lifestyle is the important factor. Because the curvature of the lower back includes soft tissue (i.e., intervertebral discs), and not just bone, it cannot be said that the lumbar lordosis of Neanderthals differed from that of modern humans.

“Bones are often all that’s preserved in fossils, so that’s all we have to work with.”

“Decreased physical activity levels, poor posture, and use of furniture, among other lifestyle changes that accompanied industrialization, have, over time, resulted in inadequate soft tissue structures to support lumbar lordosis during development.”

“To compensate, our lower back bones took on more wedging than our preindustrial and Neanderthal predecessors, potentially contributing to the frequency of lower back pain we find in postindustrial societies.”

Journal reference:

  1. Scott A Williams et al. Inferring lumbar lordosis in Neanderthals and other hominids. DO I: 10.1093/pnasnexus/pgab005
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