November 5, 2010
Researchers from England & Canada presented earlier this week brand new evidence that the neanderthals’ life was much more dominated by competition & promiscuity than our lifes today! Maybe more surprizing is the method that the researchers used to acquire their new findings: finger length ratio measurements!
The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, draws upon a famous and controversial indicator of social behavior: the comparative length of the index finger and the ring finger, also known as the 2D:4D finger ratio. If the ring finger is longer than the index finger, that’s supposed to be correlated with higher prenatal exposure to androgens — resulting in a higher proclivity for aggressiveness and promiscuity.
A few numbers from the results:
• Modern humans averaged a 0.957 index-to-ring finger ratio, and were considered to be on the line between a “pair-bonded,” or monogamous, species and a middle-of-the-road species.
• Chimps, gorillas and orangutans had index-to-ring ratios in the 0.90 to 0.92 range, and were classified as “non-pair-bonded,” or promiscuous.
• An early modern human from Israel’s Qafzeh Cave, thought to be about 95,000 years old, had an index-to-ring ratio of 0.935. Based on that statistic, the researchers surmised this individual would be more promiscuous than modern humans.
• The finger bones from five Neanderthals yielded a 0.928 ratio, associated with even greater competitiveness and promiscuity. Ardipithecus’ bones took it up another notch, to 0.899. Two even older primate ancestors, Hispanopithecus and Pierolapithecus, had ratios of 0.848 and 0.908, which means they would have been tough to live with as well.
• On the other end of the spectrum, the monogamous gibbons had a 1.009 ratio … and the australopith sample came in with a ratio higher than that of modern-day humans (0.979). The implication, then, is that australopiths were monogamous.
Scientists, in collaboration with researchers at the universities of Southampton and Calgary, used finger ratios from fossilised skeletal remains of early apes and extinct hominins, as indicators of the levels of exposure species had to prenatal androgens – a group of hormones that is important in the development of masculine characteristics such as aggression and promiscuity.
It is thought that androgens, such as testosterone, affect finger length during development in the womb. High levels of the hormones increase the length of the fourth finger in comparison to the second finger, resulting in a low index to ring finger ratio (2D:4D digit ratio). Researchers analysed the fossil finger bone ratios of Neanderthals and early apes, as well as hominins, Ardipithecus ramidus and Australopithecus afarensis, to further understanding of their social behaviour.
The team found that the fossil finger ratios of Neanderthals, and early members of the human species, were lower than most living humans, which suggests that they had been exposed to high levels of prenatal androgens. This indicates that early humans were likely to be more competitive and promiscuous than people today.
The results also suggest that early hominin, Australopithecus – dating from approximately three to four million years ago – was likely to be monogamous, whereas the earlier Ardipithecus appears to have been highly promiscuous and more similar to living great apes. The research suggests that more fossils are needed to fully understand the social behaviour of these two groups.
Dr Susanne Shultz, from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford describes:
“Social behaviours are notoriously difficult to identify in the fossil record. Developing novel approaches, such as finger ratios, can help inform the current debate surrounding the social systems of the earliest human ancestors.”
And Dr Emma Nelson, an archaeologist from the University of Liverpool, argues that comparing the finger-length ratios of extinct and present-day species is a valid technique for making an indirect assessment of our long-gone ancestors’ social behavior. She said:
“It is believed that prenatal androgens (male sex hormones) affect the genes responsible for the development of the fingers, toes and the reproductive system. We have recently shown that promiscuous primate species have low index to ring finger ratios, while monogamous species have high ratios.”
“We used this information to estimate the social behaviour of extinct apes and hominins. Although the fossil record is limited for this period, and more fossils are needed to confirm our findings, this method could prove to be an exciting new way of understanding how our social behaviour has evolved.