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A Simple Case of Ear Infection Could Be the Reason Why Entire Species of Neanderthals Went Extinct

Instead, the authors believe the path to extinction may well have been the most common and innocuous of childhood illnesses that is, chronic ear infections.

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Updated:September 24, 2019, 7:52 AM IST
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A Simple Case of Ear Infection Could Be the Reason Why Entire Species of Neanderthals Went Extinct
A reconstruction of a female Homo erectus, who is believed to have mastered cooking. Picture: Smithsonian Museum Of Natural History.

The biggest unsolved anthropological mystery of the 21st century is the question: What killed off the Neanderthals and why did Homo sapiens thrive even as Neanderthals withered to extinction?

Researchers and scientists are trying to understand was it some sort of plague specific only to Neanderthals which led to its disintegration? Was there some sort of cataclysmic event in their homelands of Eurasia that lead to their disappearance?

‘Ancient origins’ mentions a new study from a team of physical anthropologists and head and neck anatomists suggests a less dramatic but equally deadly cause. Published online by the journal, The Anatomical Record, the study, Reconstructing the Neanderthal Eustachian Tube: New Insights on Disease Susceptibility, Fitness Cost, and Extinction suggests that the real culprit in the demise of the Neanderthals was not some exotic pathogen.

Instead, the authors believe the path to extinction may well have been the most common and innocuous of childhood illnesses that is, chronic ear infections.

Co-investigator and Downstate Health Sciences University Associate Professor Samuel Márquez, PhD, said, “It may sound far-fetched, but when we, for the first time, reconstructed the Eustachian tubes of Neanderthals, we discovered that they are remarkably similar to those of human infants. Middle ear infections are nearly ubiquitous among infants because the flat angle of an infant's Eustachian tubes is prone to retain the otitis media bacteria that cause these infections - the same flat angle we found in Neanderthals.”

The study also mentions that in this age of antibiotics, these infections are easy to treat and relatively benign for human babies. Additionally, around age 5, the Eustachian tubes in human children lengthen and the angle becomes more acute, allowing the ear to drain, all but eliminating these recurring infections beyond early childhood.

The structure of the Eustachian tubes in Neanderthals do not change with age - which means these ear infections and their complications, including respiratory infections, hearing loss, pneumonia, and worse, would not only become chronic, but a lifelong threat to overall health and survival.

“It's not just the threat of dying of an infection,” said Dr. Márquez. "If you are constantly ill, you would not be as fit and effective in competing with your H. sapien cousins for food and other resources. In a world of survival of the fittest, it is no wonder that modern man, not Neanderthal, prevailed.”

“The strength of the study lies in reconstructing the cartilaginous Eustachian tube,” said Richard Rosenfeld, MD, MPH, MBA, Distinguished Professor and Chairman of Otolaryngology at SUNY Downstate. “This new and previously unknown understanding of middle ear function in Neanderthals is what allows us to make new inferences regarding the impact on their health and fitness.”

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