Exhumed Neanderthal fossils do not paint a gentle portrait of the lives of our closest extinct hominid relative. Because the vast majority of them have been found to have mysterious traumatic lesions and post-traumatic degenerative changes, researchers have been trying for decades to figure out how exactly this crowd got so messed up. In a new effort to solve this mystery, scientists stumbled upon a peculiar correlation: The modern-day activities that wreck humans in the most statistically similar way to Neanderthal injuries include running into tables, golf accidents, and water tubing.
University of Missouri-Columbia anthropologists Libby Cowgill, Ph.D., and James Bain, Ph.D., recently presented this finding at the 86th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. With the knowledge that Neanderthals have typically been found to have more head trauma and less skeletal trauma in the pelvis and lower limb areas, Cowgill and Bain examined 84 sets of human trauma data taken from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. Each set collected information about a different sport or activity.
Of all the sets they looked at, 14 activities were deemed to result in injury patterns that were “not statistically significantly different” to the ones Neanderthals have been found to have. The activities that showed the most similar injury patterns were water tubing, followed by boomerang games, then accidents involving a golf cart. These are activities that affect the face and head, which make up 30 percent of Neanderthal injuries.
This research negates the findings of a widely cited 1995 study that concluded that rodeo accidents share the most similarities to Neanderthal injuries. But more importantly, Cowgill and Bain argue, is that the exercise of trying to understand Neanderthal behavior by looking at modern injury is pretty pointless. Sure, it’s a fun bit of trivia, but because there were no water parks 40,000 years ago, knowing that water tube injuries are similar to Neanderthal injuries doesn’t do much to solve the mystery.
“It is possible that this method of drawing comparisons between patterns of Pleistocene trauma and those of modern sports samples may be problematic due to issues of survivorship and small fossil sample size,” the researchers write. “It also remains possible injury distribution data provides insufficient resolution to interpret past behaviors, due to the wide variety of specific activity patterns that can generate a single distribution pattern.”
While comparing injury types here doesn’t do much to help the long- standing effort to figure out these early man boo-boos, at least next time you get wrecked while tubing, you can have a bit of insight to the pain Neanderthals once felt. Neanderthals made out, were lonely, and enjoyed homes with hot water, just like you — and it’s probably true that they would have enjoyed a gnar sesh on the Lazy River too.