Neanderthals help explain the origin of back pain

Neanderthal back pain

Image: laurencerouault/Pixabay/Reproduction

It is believed that the posture of neanderthals is quite different from what is seen in modern humans. The evidence indeed indicates that we, Homo sapienswe have lumbar (lower back) vertebrae that are more curved than our cousins, but that story may be half-told.

Many of the spines analyzed to date belonged to humans who lived in the post-industrial period. An international team of researchers began to suspect that this fact could interfere with reality and, therefore, change our perception of back pain. So they decided to compare the vertebrae of Neanderthals, pre-industrial and post-industrial humans.

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In the research, 300 spines were analyzed, totaling 1,600 vertebrae. As a result, scientists realized that Neanderthal columns were significantly different from those of post-industrial peoples, but not from pre-industrial peoples. The full study was published in the scientific journal Nexus PNAS.

There is a very simple explanation: industrialization has made humans more sedentary. The end of the 19th century came with jobs that allowed employees to sit at the table, for example. In addition, the number of people working standing in the field has decreased.

In this way, the difference between spines would have occurred not for evolutionary reasons, but for living and working conditions. Previous studies show that higher rates of back pain are primarily associated with urban and office environments.

Neanderthal back pain
Lumbar of a Neanderthal on the left and a post-industrial modern human on the right, demonstrating differences in the curvature of the lower back. Image: Scott Williams, NYU Department of Anthropology/Reproduction

Lumbar lordosis is caused by angulation of the vertebrae and intervertebral discs – joints that give flexibility to the spine. Scott Williams, author of the study, explained in communicated that decreasing levels of physical activity, poor posture and use of furniture have resulted in soft tissue structures being inadequate to cope with this change.

“To compensate, our lower back bones took on more angulation than our preindustrial and Neanderthal predecessors, potentially contributing to the frequency of low back pain we find in postindustrial societies.”

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