A summary of Yoel Rak’s talk at the last month meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society in Vancouver, Canada has surfaced in a National Geographic news article from several days ago. Yoel Rak and William Hylander analyzed the anatomy of the Neandertal face and inferred what that coulda meant as far as Neandertal dietary behavior. Did they take quaint bites like a sophisticated aristocrat or were they ruthless wide mouth ogres? If you read the title of this post you’d know the answer to that.
Rak presented his findings, specifically focusing on how the forward-positioned molars and an unusually large mandibular notches allowed Neandertals to gape widely. I’ve put up a photo of La Ferrassie 1 to you right. La Ferrassie 1 is a Neandertal skull found in 1909 in France that shows both traits.
“The scientists believe the large space behind Neandertals’ molars created a geometry that allowed them to take extremely large bites… perhaps an adaptation to the size of the food Neandertals ate, the researchers said.”
This sort of conclusion reeks of adaptionist story telling. I remember reading a similar study that analyzed the form of a horse’s mouth and concluded that it is perfectly adapted to eat apples. Just silly to think of selection and adaptation this way. Anyone one else who shares this sentiment will also appreciate Alan Mann‘s snarky commentary, which really drives home the ridiculous nature behind this study. Mann said,
“They didn’t have to put a whole [animal] leg in their mouths.”
The news article goes on to express Mann’s opinion, on how the gape size expanded as a function of brain expansion.
“What has changed is the architecture that we begin to see in modern humans, where the face and the braincase have different kinds of structural relationships…This has produced a change in our ability to open our mouths.”
Recently, I introduced related studies that showed how Neandertals may have eaten plants and how form may not equal function in regards to hominin mastication anatomy. I have some concerns with both studies, but that doesn’t mean they don’t provide applicable criticisms towards Rak and Hylander’s conclusions on Neandertal dietary behavior.