Cavemen Battled Back Pain?

David Donald

Neanderthals Battled Back Pain

Back pain has plagued humans for tens of thousands of years. People struggling with back pain have been found in historical records dating back to ancient Greece and Egypt. There’s probably a painting in a cave somewhere depicting paleolithic humans clutching their lower backs in pain.

Finding evidence of back pain before humans put ink to paper, however, required a little more digging.

During the early 20th century, many anthropologists compared the posture and gait of neanderthals to apes more so than modern humans.

It wasn’t until the late 1950s when a study showed neanderthals walked like humans and even developed degenerative spine conditions and suffered from back pain.

The discovery of osteoarthritis in neanderthals was happened upon by chance by William L. Straus and A.J.E. Cave. In 1957, They had traveled to France to examine the Fontechevade skulls – a controversial set of remains predating humans and neanderthals by more than 100,000 years. However, Straus and cave were only allowed to examine casts of the skull fragments and could not take any measurements.

Straus and Cave gave up on their effort to study the Fontechevade skulls and, instead, turned their attention to the neanderthal skeletons housed in the museum. One skeleton of particular interest was “The Old Man” of La Chapelle-aux-Saints.

Paleolithic Mystery

“The Old Man” was found in a cave near the village of La Chapelle-aux-Saints in 1908 by three French clerics (the brothers A. and J. Bouyssonie and L. Bardon) and amateur paleontologists. It was one of the most significant anthropological finds of the 20 century. The clerics had unearthed one of the most complete Neanderthal skeletons, estimated to be about 60,000 years old.

The first Neanderthal bones were discovered in a limestone cave in the Neander Valley (hence their name) near Dusseldorf, Germany in 1856.  Neanderthals lived during the ice age.  They are the closest human relatives ever found, although, there is a striking difference in appearance. They were shorter and stockier with angled cheekbones, prominent brow ridges, and wide noses.

How they walked was a mystery.

The caveman from La Chepell-aux-Saints shed light into neanderthal posture and movement.

In 1911, the French Paleontologist Marcellin Boule studied and reconstructed the skeleton. When he published his findings, it was the first analysis of a complete neanderthal skeleton.

Boule’s concluded that Neanderthals had a forward-thrusting skull, a spine that didn’t curve, and bent hips. Although fiercely debated among anthropologists for decades, Boule’s observations would become the standard view.

Neanderthals Battled Back Pain
This is how British anthropologist Grafton Elliot Smith described the Neanderthal. Source: Pathology and the Posture of Neanderthal

Diagnosis: Degenerative Spine Condition

Neanderthal vertebrae
Vertebrae from a Neanderthal Skeleton discovered in La Chapelle-Aux Saints in France.

Straus and A.J.E. upended those views after reexamining the skeleton in 1957. Boule’s conclusions were misguided. He did not take into account the pathology and degeneration of the spine.

Straus and Cave presented their findings in a 1957 paper “Pathology and the Posture of Neanderthal Man,” which showed Neanderthals suffered from degenerative spine conditions just like humans.  The “Old Man” was hunched over and he jutted forward because of the deteriorating condition of his spine. Patients who suffer from osteoarthritis and other spine-related conditions affect the posture of the body.

The Neanderthal who died in a cave in France more than 60,000 years ago had a back problem.

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