What you need to know
Anthony S. Pagano, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Medical Sciences at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall University — along with colleagues Samuel Márquez from SUNY Downstate College of Medicine and Jeffrey Laitman from the Icahn School of Medicine — conducted the first-ever reconstruction of the Neanderthal Eustachian tube.
The published research implicates Neanderthal ear anatomy and the resulting susceptibility to bacterial middle ear infections as a factor in their extinction.
Advanced Technology and Pioneering Research
Using Neanderthal fossils and advanced 3D digital technology called geometric morphometrics that is commonly used by biologists, paleontologists, and anthropologists, Dr. Pagano and his colleagues reconstructed the Neanderthal Eustachian tube. Then, Dr. Pagano compared the reconstructed Neanderthal Eustachian tube dimensions to those of contemporary humans spanning in age from birth to adulthood in his previous studies of normal Eustachian tube growth changes.
Dr. Pagano’s previous studies found that the Eustachian tubes of human infants and young children are horizontally oriented, making them more likely to develop acute bacterial middle ear infections. Dr. Pagano’s previous research demonstrated that the human Eustachian tube becomes more vertically oriented around age six, allowing for better ear drainage that corresponds with today’s clinically observed decline in the rate of acute bacterial middle ear infections in older children.
Setting the Stage for Extinction
In his most recent study, Dr. Pagano and his team found that the Neanderthal Eustachian tube remained horizontally oriented throughout life and did not undergo the vertical re-orientation that humans experience around age six.
As a result, Dr. Pagano’s research suggests that Neanderthals were more susceptible to bacterial middle ear disease beyond childhood, which may have translated to higher mortality rates and lower reproductive rates in a pre-antibiotic world. These factors may have led to a gradual decline in the Neanderthal population over centuries that set the stage for eventual extinction.
Understanding the Role of Disease in Evolution
Dr. Pagano’s manuscript was first published online on August 31, 2019, in the Early View section of The Anatomical Record, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Association for Anatomy. The manuscript will also appear in a future print issue of the journal.