Did chronic ear infections help kill off the Neanderthal?

 

anthropology

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A New York anthropological science study has suggested that something as commonplace to the modern manchild as middle ear infections were linked to the extinction of the archaic human species, Neanderthals.

Just why evolution left behind the Neanderthal is a mystery this recent finding has made all the more intriguing for the audiology community. The study by physical anthropologists and head and neck anatomists at New York's Suny Downstate Health Sciences University suggests that poor eustachian structure and drainage may have meant Neanderthals had life-long chronic ear infections.

Cartilaginous reconstruction by the researchers of the Neanderthal eustachian tube shows it has the same angle as that of modern children. In our young, the tube angle changes in their infancy; but Neanderthals, it seems, passed to adulthood with no such change, meaning ear infections and their complications, as well as respiratory infections, hearing loss, pneumonia, and worse, were likely to develop to threaten health and survival.

Up to now, science has has wavered between a whodunnit and and a whatdunnit on Neanderthal extinction: either climate change or diseases brought by the arrival of modern humans. The possibility of something as everyday as a compromised middle ear has not been considered.

"It may sound far-fetched, but when we, for the first time, reconstructed the Eustachian tubes of Neanderthals, we discovered that they are remarkably similar to those of human infants," said co-investigator and Downstate Health Sciences University Associate Professor Samuel Márquez. "Middle ear infections are nearly ubiquitous among infants because the flat angle of an infant's Eustachian tubes is prone to retain the otitis media bacteria that cause these infections - the same flat angle we found in Neanderthals."

"It's not just the threat of dying of an infection," said Dr. Márquez. "If you are constantly ill, you would not be as fit and effective in competing with your Homo sapien cousins for food and other resources. In a world of survival of the fittest, it is no wonder that modern man, not Neanderthal, prevailed."

The study—"Reconstructing the Neanderthal Eustachian Tube: New Insights on Disease Susceptibility, Fitness Cost, and Extinction"—was published in the journal The Anatomical Record.

Source: Suny Downstate Health Sciences University

P.W.