Why was the Neanderthal nose so big?

One of the more unusual Neanderthal features is a very large nose. Although many explanations for it have been proposed, none have held water. Until now.


Neanderthals are so closely related to us that our species could interbreed. Despite this similarity, there are many peculiar differences between us. For example, they have a ruddy big nose!

For a long time, people thought this might be due to the fact they lived through several ice ages. Perhaps their big nose was an adaptation to heat up the cold air they were breathing.

However, evidence for this idea is lacking. So now we’re back to square one.  Or at least we were, as some researchers now claim to have found an alternate explanation for their big nose1.

And it could help explain the Neanderthal extinction.

Oh my, what a big nose you have

When talking about the massive Neanderthal nose, it’s worth remembering we aren’t just speaking about the bit of the face you can see (although that was fairly big). Their nasal cavity in the skull was also appropriately large2.

This was a large part of the reason many researchers thought that this feature was an adaptation for a cold environment. Its unique size would mean air would spend a bit longer in there, allowing it to heat up more before it went into the body. Warmer air entering the body would mean less energy would be wasted heating it up, a vital adaptation when living through an ice age3.

A neanderthal with a damaged face, exposing their nasal cavity and highlighting just how large it is

However, subsequent research found that our smaller nasal cavity was also good at heating up air. It turns out that this is because the shape of the nose is more important than its size. Thus, we’re able to do just as much warming with much less space1,3.

As a result of this, a team of researchers created computer simulations of Neanderthal nose. Their goal: to test what it is actually good for1.

Their results revealed that many popular explanations don’t hold water (or air). For example, they confirmed that their nose is surprisingly inefficient at heating up air. Nor did it help them chew better1.

Instead, their results reached a shocking conclusion. A large nose is good breathing large amounts of air1! Ultimately, it turns out Neanderthals could move almost twice as much air through their nose as humans.

Simulations of air flowing through (from left to right) Homo heidelbergensis, Neanderthal, and human nasal cavity

Sniffing out the Neanderthal extinction

So a big nose means you can take big breaths. This might seem somewhat trivial, but it actually has far-reaching implications. Including, perhaps, helping explain their extinction.

Think about when you find yourself taking big breaths. It’s typically associated with bouts of intense physical activity. Or in my own unhealthy life, bouts of any physical activity. As such, the researchers speculate that this adaptation in Neanderthals could be the result of something similar. They engage in physical activity more often than us, thus they evolved to take bigger breaths than us to help cope with it1. But what were they doing that resulted in such high levels of exercise?

Well, Neanderthals were tough. They had strong bones, muscles, and big brains (and possibly other big organs). However, all of this strength comes at a cost. Namely, that they had pretty high energy demands4. It’s hard work fuelling big muscles, after all. I mean, have you seen how much bodybuilders have to eat?

Could this large nose be another indicator of the Neanderthal body’s naturally high demands? It’s a possibility1. They needed a big nose to get the air needed to sustain their intense body.

The energy demands of the Neanderthal body are thought to be one reason why we thrived, but they went extinct. Perhaps our more efficient setup gave us the edge in the long-run4. Although this explanation for extinction is debated, this new nose evidence is consistent with the hypothesis.

Their big noses may have been a sign that the species was doomed. And, by extension, our small noses are a symptom of our success.

References

  1. Wroe, S., Parr, W.C., Ledogar, J.A., Bourke, J., Evans, S.P., Fiorenza, L., Benazzi, S., Hublin, J.J., Stringer, C., Kullmer, O. and Curry, M., 2018. Computer simulations show that Neanderthal facial morphology represents adaptation to cold and high energy demands, but not heavy biting. Proc. R. Soc. B285(1876), p.20180085.
  2. Márquez, S., Pagano, A.S., Delson, E., Lawson, W. and Laitman, J.T., 2014. The nasal complex of Neanderthals: an entry portal to their place in human ancestry. The Anatomical Record297(11), pp.2121-2137.
  3. de Azevedo, S., González, M.F., Cintas, C., Ramallo, V., Quinto-Sánchez, M., Márquez, F., Hünemeier, T., Paschetta, C., Ruderman, A., Navarro, P. and Pazos, B.A., 2017. Nasal airflow simulations suggest convergent adaptation in Neanderthals and modern humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences114(47), pp.12442-12447.
  4. CHURCHILL, S.E., 2009. Energetic competition between Neandertals and anatomically modern humans. PaleoAnthropology96, p.116.

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Why was the Neanderthal nose so big?

by Adam Benton
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