Research verifies a Neandertal's right-handedness, hinting at language capacity

Research verifies a Neandertal's right-handedness, hinting at language capacity
Scratch marks on the teeth from the Neandertal skeleton Regourdou.

(—There are precious few Neandertal skeletons available to science. One of the more complete was discovered in 1957 in France, roughly 900 yards away from the famous Lascaux Cave. That skeleton was dubbed "Regourdou." Then, about two decades ago, researchers examined Regourdou's arm bones and theorized that he had been right-handed.

"This skeleton had a mandible and parts of the skeleton below the neck," said David Frayer, professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas. "Twenty-plus years ago, some people studied the skeleton and argued that it was a right-handed individual based on the of the right arm versus the left arm."

Handedness, a uniquely , signals brain lateralization, where each of the brain's two hemispheres is specialized. The left brain controls the right side of the body and in a human plays a primary role for language. So, if Neandertals were primarily right-handed, like modern humans, that fact could suggest a capacity for language.

Now, a new investigation by Frayer and an international team led by Virginie Volpato of the Senckenberg Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, has confirmed Regourdou's right-handedness by looking more closely at the robustness of the arms and shoulders, and comparing it with scratches on his . Their findings are published today in the journal .

"We've been studying scratch marks on Neandertal teeth, but in all cases they were isolated teeth, or teeth in mandibles not directly associated with skeletal material," said Frayer. "This is the first time we can check the pattern that's seen in the teeth with the pattern that's seen in the arms. We did more sophisticated analysis of the arms—the collarbone, the humerus, the radius and the ulna—because we have them on both sides. And we looked at cortical thickness and other biomechanical measurements. All of them confirmed that everything was more robust on the right side then the left."

Frayer said Neandertals used their mouths like a "third hand" and that produced more wear and tear on the front teeth than their back ones. "It's long been known the Neandertals had been heavily processing things with their incisors and canines," he said.

Frayer's research on Regourdou's teeth confirmed the individual's right-handedness.

"We looked at the cut marks on the lower incisors and canines," said the KU researcher. "The marks that are on the lip side of the incisor teeth are oblique, or angled in such away that it indicates they were gripping with the left hand and cutting with the right, and every now and then they'd hit the teeth and leave these scratch marks that were there for the life of the individual."

Frayer said that the research on Regourdou shows that 89 percent of European Neandertal fossils (16 of 18) showed clear preference for their right hands. This is very similar to the prevalence of right-handers in modern human populations—about 90 percent of people alive today favor their right hands.

Frayer and his co-authors conclude that such ratios suggest a Neandertal capacity for language.

"The long-known connection between brain asymmetry, handedness and language in living populations serves as a proxy for estimating brain lateralization in the fossil record and the likelihood of language capacity in fossils," they write.

Explore further

New research suggests right-handedness prevailed 500,000 years ago

More information: PLoS ONE 7(8): e43949. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0043949
Journal information: PLoS ONE

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Aug 24, 2012
This article caught my eye, as I am left handed.
The assertion: handedness implies brain specialization, which in turn implies a limit in the ability to acquire language skill, is a stretch.

As far as I know, modern humans acquire language skill regardless of their brain lateralization. With similar levels of effort (i.e. we don't have special language classes for left-handers.)

Regarding specialization: in left handers, language manipulation is merely distributed across other areas of the brain. But we already know the brain is fairly plastic, and will redistribute functions like language skill when necessary. I.e. handedness is not a prerequisite for language capability, so being "handed" doesn't strongly imply that capability. Why should this not also be so for Neanderthals?

Aug 24, 2012 rather than a limitation, there is actually an increase in what can be done with the same brain capacity when there is specialising of areas, rather than general spreading around of individual functions. Humans & Neanderthalers aren't actually alone with this feature. Animals who can vocalise tend to have a preference too. Not quite as marked as most humans but it's there. For example, my cat will tend to lead with her left paw when playing, even though she is using both of them. I have observed the same kind of thing in my dog (long deceased now) when she would 'shake paw', or put said paw on my lap when she wanted something. There tended to be a consistency of preference. I have observed this will other's cats and dogs too. And in other animals where the paw or claw was used to grasp or hold...cont

Aug 24, 2012
"Regarding specialization: in left handers, language manipulation is merely distributed across other areas of the brain"
Unfortunately not quite so simple (from 2nd link in the 1st post):
...cont "This language loop is found in the left hemisphere in about 90% of right-handed persons and 70% of left-handed persons, language being one of the functions that is performed asymmetrically in the brain." So there is a 70% chance that you actually have the 'right-hander' version of the speech areas, despite being left-handed. Or a 30% chance that everything is 'just' side-reversed :) That link appears to have some pretty decent and solid info in it, you might find it worth your while to explore it a bit more deeply, just for fun.
Best Regards, DH66

Aug 24, 2012
@alfie - I think the key is lateralization, not which hand was dominant.

Aug 24, 2012
Try these to start:
Cheers, DH66
PS @R2Bacca: good idea to provide a reasonable link to get someone started, if you are suggesting that they might like to find out more. Makes it more convenient and thus more likely that they will read it (at least for the ones who are genuinely wanting to learn more. lol)

Aug 24, 2012
The right vs left lateralization isn't all that strong. Note also that hominins tend to be right-handed, chimps are at some 60 % IIRC, and who knows how far back that trait goes.

On the other hand, they just discovered that gibbons vocal apparatus are like ours, in that the chest and vocal cord mechanisms are separated. I.e. gibbons howl like we shout. So the preexisting mechanisms that later evolved to language may be as old as hominoids.

Aug 27, 2012
This is interesting...My first post has disappeared. As far as I know, there was nothing in it that should have been deemed as offensive or unacceptable? Has physorg automated the process now??? I don't know, but if they have, they would be encouraging a free-for-all in reporting. The trolls would have a field day!! Not a good idea. Anyway, here is a re-post of the links that got deleted too:
Best Regards to all, DH66

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