A new study suggests that Neanderthals commonly suffered from “swimmer's ear” or “surfer’s ear” - dense bony growths that protrude into the ear canal. This is usually caused by a habitual exposure to cold water or chilly air, and scientists believe its prevalence demonstrates that Neanderthals liked to fish and gather sea resources.
The Prevalence of Swimmer’s Ear in Neanderthals and Other Ancient Humans
The article on the study in PLOS ONE , explains that while swimmer’s ear, which is technically known as External Auditory Exostoses (EAE), has been noted previously in the remains of modern humans and Neanderthals from the Pleistocene epoch, no one has truly examined them in-depth.
Erik Trinkaus of Washington University, and his French colleagues on the report, Mathilde Samsel and Sébastien Villotte from the University of Bordeaux, came to their conclusion after studying the well-preserved ear canals in the remains of 77 ancient humans, including Neanderthals and early modern humans, from the Middle to Late Pleistocene epoch of western Eurasia.
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While the frequency of the pathology in modern humans remains similar, they found the condition was exceptionally common in Neanderthals. Almost half of the 23 Neanderthals that were studied exhibited mild to severe exostoses – that’s at least twice the frequency seen in almost any other population studied.
Presence of EAE (“swimmer’s ear”) in early modern humans (top) and Neanderthals (bottom). ( Trinkaus, Samsel & Villotte )
If They Weren’t Playing Water Sports, What were the Neanderthals Up To?
These days, EAE is usually associated with water sports and aquatic activities such as diving, surfing, and kayaking. As Trinkaus and colleagues note in their paper “the most frequently observed irritant is cold water, in the context of cold water sports or foraging.”
And the researchers have opted for that second explanation – exploiting the sea’s resources. They write their findings “indicate a higher frequency of aquatic resource exploitation among both groups of humans than is suggested by the archeological record. In particular, it reinforces the foraging abilities and resource diversity of the Neandertals.”
But as Science Daily points out, they also note “the geographic distribution of exostoses seen in Neanderthals does not exhibit a definitive correlation with proximity to ancient water sources nor to cooler climates as would be expected. The authors propose that multiple factors were probably involved in this high abundance of exostoses, probably including environmental factors as well as genetic predispositions.”
The La Chapelle-aux-Saints Neandertal skull, with the external auditory exostoses ("swimmer's ear" growths) in the left canal indicated. ( Erik Trinkaus )
So, it seems like with many of the questions related to anthropology, what we see here is a mixture of nature and genetics creating an outcome. The researchers also recognize this in their paper :
"It remains likely that the high level of external auditory exostosis among the Neanderthals [..] is due in part to the exploitation of aquatic resources. However, the Neanderthal frequency is at the upper limits of recent human population values and is matched only by those who experienced cold water maritime climates. It is therefore likely that, as with eastern Eurasian later archaic humans, multiple factors were involved in their abundance of external auditory exostosis."
Another Prehistoric Case of Surfer’s Ear
Last December another report surfaced regarding the prevalence of surfer’s ear in a prehistoric population. At that time researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute found that the search for sea treasure, in the form of precious pearls, caused Pre-Columbian divers to suffer from EAE too.
As study lead author, Nicole Smith-Guzmán said regarding that find:
“We think it more likely that diving in the cold waters of the Gulf caused these cases of surfer's ear. Silvery mother-of-pearl ornaments, and orange and purple ones from two large 'thorny' oysters in the Spondylus genus were common in burials and comprised an important trade item in the region. Some of these shells wash up on beaches, but by the time Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and other Spanish explorers arrived, their chronicles tell us that expert divers were trained from childhood to dive down to four fathoms to retrieve pearl oysters of desirable large size.”
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Catching of pearls, Bern Physiologus (9th century manuscript describing pearl diving).
It does make you wonder, if the EAE prevalence is related to natural factors, perhaps the Neanderthals were up to more than just fishing…but either way, as Trinkaus has stated , Neanderthals were certainly more skilled than many people have given them credit for. He said that his study:
“reinforces a number of arguments and sources of data to argue for a level of adaptability and flexibility and capability among the Neanderthals, which has been denied them by some people in the field. You have to be able to have a certain minimal level of technology, you need to be able to know when the fish are going to be coming up the rivers or going along the coast—it's a fairly elaborate process.”
Other Neanderthal Health Issues
Of course, EAE isn’t the only health issue Neanderthals had to deal with. And some previous studies have even found that some of the health problems we see today were passed down by Neanderthals who mated with Homo sapiens .
For example, a study in 2016 suggests that Neanderthal genes play a role in the presence of all sorts of health issues - immunological, dermatological, neurological, psychiatric and reproductive diseases. It has also been found that the Neanderthal genes that help with blood coagulation in modern humans also make us more susceptible to allergies .
Neanderthal genes have been connected to many health issues in modern humans, this image shows some of them. ( Deborah Brewington/Vanderbilt University )