Right-handedness implies Neanderthal capacity for language

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Just like us, Neanderthals were mostly right-handed, new research has confirmed - possibly indicating a capacity for language.

A Neanderthal skeleton discovered in 1957 near the famous Lascaux cave was found some time ago to have been right-handed.

"This skeleton had a mandible and parts of the skeleton below the neck," says David Frayer, professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas.

"Twenty-plus years ago, some people studied the skeleton and argued that it was a right-handed individual based on the muscularity of the right arm versus the left arm."

Frayer's team has now confirmed this by looking more closely at the robustness of the arms and shoulders, and comparing it with scratches on the teeth.

Neanderthals used their mouths like a third hand, producing more wear and tear on the front teeth than their back ones; and the scratch marks reveal the left hand being used to grip and the right used for cutting.

"We’ve been studying scratch marks on Neandertal teeth, but in all cases they were isolated teeth, or teeth in mandibles not directly associated with skeletal material," he says.

"This is the first time we can check the pattern that’s seen in the teeth with the pattern that’s seen in the arms. We did more sophisticated analysis of the arms — the collarbone, the humerus, the radius and the ulna — because we have them on both sides. And we looked at cortical thickness and other biomechanical measurements. All of them confirmed that everything was more robust on the right side then the left."

According to Frayer, 89 percent of European Neanderthal fossils show a clear preference for their right hands - a very similar proportion to modern humans.

And the finding may indicate a Neanderthal capacity for language, he says. Handedness signals brain lateralization, where each of the brain’s two hemispheres is specialized. The left brain controls the right side of the body, and in a human plays a primary role for language.

So, if Neanderthals were primarily right-handed, like modern humans, that could imply a capacity for language.