External auditory exostoses are dense bony growths that protrude into the ear canal. Such exostoses have been noted in ancient humans, but little research has examined how the condition might inform our understanding of past human lifestyles.
The authors suggest that the most likely explanation for this pattern is that these Neanderthals spent a significant amount of time collecting resources in aquatic settings. However, 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.
Trinkaus adds: “An exceptionally high frequency of external auditory exostoses (bony growths in the ear canal; “swimmer’s ear”) among the Neandertals, and a more modest level among high latitude earlier Upper Paleolithic modern humans, 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.”
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