In a comparative study published in PNAS Nexus, a team of anthropologists analyzed the spines of Neanderthals for insight into the frequency of back-related ailments in modern humans. The team found a difference in the curvature of the spines of Neanderthals and humans living in postindustrial societies, which may explain the high frequency of lower back pain in contemporary humans.
“Neanderthals are not distinct from modern humans in lumbar wedging and therefore likely possessed curved lower backs like we do,” explains Scott Williams, an associate professor in New York University’s Department of Anthropology and one of the authors of the paper. “However, over time, specifically after the onset of industrialization in the late 19th century, we see increased wedging in the lower back bones of today’s humans—a change that may relate to higher instances of back pain, and other afflictions, in postindustrial societies.”
Williams and his team examined preindustrial and postindustrial spines of male and female modern humans from around the world—a sample that included more than 300 spines, totaling more than 1,600 vertebrae—along with samples of Neanderthal spines.
Their research showed that spines of postindustrial humans showed more lumbar wedging than those of preindustrial people, including Neanderthals.
“Diminished physical activity levels, bad posture, and the use of furniture, among other changes in lifestyle that accompanied industrialization, resulted, over time, in inadequate soft tissue structures to support lumbar lordosis during development,” Williams says. “To compensate, our lower-back bones have taken on more wedging than our preindustrial and Neanderthal predecessors, potentially contributing to the frequency of lower back pain we find in postindustrial societies.”