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Neandertals Had Big Mouths, Gaped Widely
Mati Milstein in Tel Aviv, Israel
for National Geographic News
Neandertals had big mouths that they were able to open unusually wide, new research has determined.
A recent study found that a combination of facial structure, forward-positioned molars, and an unusually large gap between the vertical parts of the back of the jaw allowed Neandertals (also spelled Neanderthals) to gape widely.
Modern humans and our direct ancestors don't have these traits, the researchers note.
But the team was unable to measure exactly how far Neandertals could open their mouths.
"This ability is connected to the length of the muscle fibers, which, of course, we don't have," said study co-author Yoel Rak, a professor of anatomy at Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine.
Rak and colleague William Hylander, an expert on jaw biomechanics at Duke University, presented their findings last month at a meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society in Vancouver, Canada.
The scientists believe the large space behind Neandertals' molars created a geometry that allowed them to take extremely large bites.
This is perhaps an adaptation to the size of the food Neandertals ate, the researchers said, although they caution that the exact reason for the wide gape remains an enigma.
"Why were they able to do this?" Rak asked. "This is something that only a time machine could help us answer."