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Human evolution: Neanderthals had short legs because they lived in hilly areas?

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Note the horse's short legs. Not much longer than the rider's.

From “Solving the Mysteries of Short-Legged Neandertals” (ScienceDaily, Oct. 19, 2011), we learn:

While most studies have concluded that a cold climate led to the short lower legs typical of Neandertals, researchers at Johns Hopkins have found that lower leg lengths shorter than the typical modern human’s let them move more efficiently over the mountainous terrain where they lived. The findings reveal a broader trend relating shorter lower leg length to mountainous environments that may help explain the limb proportions of many different animals.

At first, researchers had thought it was due to a tendency for any life form in a colder area to be short, to conserve heat.

“Studies looking at limb length have always concluded that a shorter limb, including in Neandertals, leads to less efficiency of movement, because they had to take more steps to go a given distance,” says lead author Ryan Higgins, graduate student in the Johns Hopkins Center of Functional Anatomy and Evolution. “But the other studies only looked at flat land. Our study suggests that the Neandertals’ steps were not less efficient than modern humans in the sloped, mountainous environment where they lived.”

Wouldn’t be any surprise. Wild horses (mustangs) in North American, left alone, often breed short-legged. Long-legged animals don’t live to breed. They stumble, break a leg, and don’t have a Vet Plan.  (An actual example of natural selection at work – not a fable for once. And the process is usually reversible.)

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