Meet the Mystery Man

Five foot five inches tall...
One hundred eighty pounds...
Eight percent body fat...
Prehistoric guys want to be him and chicks want to be with him...

Who is he? Why, he's Neandrethal man. The biggest, baddest, bipedal evolutionary ancestor on the block. Check him out:

Illustration of Neanderthal Man. Reprinted from Cell, Vol. 90, 1–3, July 11, 1997

Wo – you thought Neanderthals were more Quazimodo than Quadzilla, didn't you? Well, don't tell that to any of your archeologist friends. Nothing makes them cringe more than using "neanderthal" as an adjective to describe the dumb and the lazy. After all, every piece of evidence unearthed tells us just the opposite: Neanderthals were intelligent beings perfectly adapted to harsh Pleistocene conditions. And with a formidable physique that would make any bodybuilder jealous, they were hardly the hunched creatures depicted below.

So next time someone calls you a Neanderthal, thank them for the compliment, and then correct them on their pronunciation: 'Neanderthal' is pronounced with a hard t, the same as 'Beethoven'.

Original artist rendition of Neanderthals

So how did we get this false image of the hunchback, oafish Neanderthal?

This misperception stems from an infamous archaeological boo-boo. The earliest found Neanderthal bones (in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries; La Chappelle-aux-Saints, France to be exact) were those of an elderly Neanderthal man suffering from grossly deforming osteoarthritis and several injuries, including a damaged patella.

This was just after Darwin's Origins of Species hit the bookstores, and scientists were on a hunt for an ape-like ancestor in our human lineage. Legitimate ape-like ancestors would later be found in east Africa dating back millions of years ago, but everyone in the early 20th century wanted to find that "missing link" in Europe.

Blinded by this paradigm, a French paleontologist chose a beaten down, crippled old man to herald as the norm for Neanderthals, despite having specimens of perfectly healthy adults. Thus began the image of a hunchback, club-wielding brute that still persists today.

So just how buff were these Neanderthals?

The Neanderthal was the apex of musculo-skeletal hypertrophy in our evolutionary past. In fact, every piece of evidence suggests that Neanderthals were evolved to put on more muscle naturally than modern, 21st century man (that means you, Flintstone!).

Try these physical characteristics on for size:

For starters, massive, broad shoulders are indicated by a scapular breadth that is about 8% larger than their modern human contemporaries. (Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans did live side by side for several millennia.)

Muscle attachments for the pecs were enormous, up to twice the size of today's average.

Neanderthals had shorter, wider humeri (upper arms), which combined with the shoulders, suggests substantial rotator cuff muscularity. And, get this; the bones in their forearms were actually bowed from muscles that must have powered a grip that could crush stone.

All of this upper body musculature was anchored on a solid foundation of massive quads that specialized in explosive power and side-to-side movement.

Now, before you start thinking that Neanderthals were all show and no go – it appears that their physiques and lifestyles were partly tailored towards being effective hunters of large game. Wild nuts, vegetables, and fruit were also a significant part of their diet. But judging from their injuries, they engaged in hunting activities that involved close proximity to large angry Pleistocene mammals. How do we know this? Well, almost every Neanderthal skeleton shows signs of serious injury and trauma, very similar, in fact, to what is seen in modern rodeo riders.

So it appears that our fearless ancestors were purposely pissing off some of the biggest, meanest, Pleistocene megafauna like woolly rhinos until they charged, and then allowing them to impale themselves on massive tree-trunk sized spears lifted at the last moment (think Braveheart). Make no mistake folks, these impressive physiques weren't for the sake of vanity.

But with all this brawn, were the Neanderthals big, dumb brutes? Apparently not. Neanderthals also had a lot of brains behind all that brawn. In fact, their brains were little larger on average than modern man's. Now, all those brains probably did not mean that they sat around the campfire discussing the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Brain size does not directly correlate directly with intelligence. Nevertheless, they had large brains and large, lean bodies – a far cry from the popular image of the Neanderthal.

Now before you start thinking that every Neanderthal was a superhuman with a little red cape, there is some variability in Neanderthal hypertrophy. Those who stayed put for extended periods of time tended to be bigger than those who had to move around more often. For example, Neanderthal skeletons at Shanidar Cave in Iraq show great musculo-skeletal hypertrophy. It's probably no coincidence that this huge cave was a basecamp where they had plenty of food and stayed for at least a few months out of the year. In other areas with less food, however, you find smaller Neanderthals who were constantly on the go.

There are too many factors to isolate a single cause for variable levels of hypertrophy, but food abundance and the type of activity certainly played a role. All Paleolithic folks were active – they had to be to survive. But if you take a group of people who walk hundreds of kilometers in a yearly cycle versus those who stay in one place longer and engage in short bouts of intensive activity, then what we might be witnessing is something along the lines of endurance versus strength-trained physiques.

What Happened to the Neanderthal?

Ironically, the rough and tumble lifestyle and brawny physique that ensured their survival for hundreds of thousands of years also sealed their fate, making room for Homo sapiens. While Neanderthals were occupying most of Europe and the Middle East, anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa and subsequently spread into areas occupied by Neanderthals, in some cases co-existing with their evolutionary cousins. (If you've ever read Jane Auel's Earth's Children series you'll recognize that Auel offered a fictional account of the interrelations between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.)

So what did our direct ancestors look like compared to our evolutionary cousins? Well, sadly for our gym performance, the earliest moderns were characterized by more atrophied bodies with equally large brains. Compared to Neanderthals, the brains to brawn ratio of moderns was significantly increased. In fact, compared to other animals, humans are primarily walking brains. (Granted, they may not all function at the same level, but they are presumably there nonetheless.)

But the Neanderthals had big brains too. So why did their kind die off while ours remained?

1. Big muscles and big brains are expensive.

Evolutionary fitness relies upon developing many contingency plans and for times when food was not plentiful and modern bodies evolved to ensure the brain remains well fed. The muscularity of humans pales in comparison to all other existing primates such as gorillas and chimps. But what we lack in muscle we make up for in fat.

Body fat is particularly important during infancy, when the brain is growing like a weed. Greater levels of body fatness (and reduced muscle mass) supports the growth of an infant brain by having a ready supply of stored energy, and by reducing the metabolic costs of the body. Muscle is just too metabolically taxing, and when it boils down to competition between brain and brawn, our genetic makeup allows the brain to win.

2. When food is scarce, we need to think good, not look good.

Our unimpressive physiques and overgrown brains have won the evolutionary challenge and the world is populated by Homo sapiens today and not Neanderthals because we can conserve more calories in our fat cells, saving energy for brain function. Therefore, during times of famine, while those big Neanderthal muscles and brains were demanding lots of energy, competing for energy resources and leaving the Neanderthal weak and intellectually sluggish, our more plentiful fat stores afforded us more energy for ingenuity. And ingenuity gets food when you're physically weak.

3. When you're weak, you don't rely on muscular strength.

Since moderns did not have the powerful physiques of the Neanderthals and could not wrestle with Woolly Mammoths, they learned to rely on their mental prowess.

Rather than chasing down prey and physically interacting with them, modern humans invested their mental energy into developing new and better technology that could take down animals from a distance (a spear throwing device, and eventually the bow and arrow). While the Neanderthal tried to physically overcome every challenge, modern man tried to outwit every challenge. A Neanderthal would take the stairs while our own ancestors would use the elevator. In other words, modern man is basically the thinking, lazy man.

4. Big brains don't always mean high intelligence.

Neanderthals and moderns had brain sizes that were roughly equivalent. Yet moderns seem to have been more intelligent. This might be a result of what those brains were made up of.

It might be no coincidence that most early Homo sapiens sites are found in coastal areas. Seafood seems to have been crucial for brain health and intelligence. A type of omega-3 fatty-acid found in fish and seafood known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the equivalent of rocket fuel for the brain. Our mammalian nervous system is composed partly of polyunsaturated fatty acids, most of which are DHA and arachidonic acid (AA). In other words, we have the same fatty acids found in marine food right between our ears. Fueled by DHA and AA, our brains evolved into their modern form with a large forebrain associated with superior intellect (outliers removed, such as Jessica Simpson).

As a result of these important differences, the fate of Neanderthals was sealed about 30,000 years ago, when global populations grew and people began competing for resources. Under demographic and environmental stress, folks with a varied diet and mental flexibility win the evolutionary coin toss. You don't need to be a fearsome hunter to catch fish and set traps for rabbits, and it was in this world that modern man flourished. Also, with fewer calories to be had, modern humans had a distinct advantage over the Neanderthals, simply by virtue of storing more fat, having fewer muscles, and burning fewer calories.

What's Left Today?

The survival of our species has depended on bigger brains, more fat, and less muscle. So yea, our evolutionary past certainly hasn't made it easy for us to have a cover model body. In fact, an overly protective Mother Nature has selected for just the opposite, a propensity to store less muscle and more fat. While this has been supremely effective in our survival, it's not done us any favors when heading to the beach.

Given that our early survival depended upon it, should we embrace corpulence and shun muscularity? Not so fast there, doughboy.

Some folks still develop Neanderthal bodies. By making food selections that build brains and muscles and by moving around lots while lifting heavy stuff, we can defy our genetics, too. After all, the current research shows that while 50-60% of our physique development can be attributed to genetics, 40-50% can be attributed to our environment (what we eat, how much we move, etc). So it's true that we can enjoy all the benefits of our big, ingenious brains while still running around like our Neanderthal cousins, lifting weights heavy enough to bow our forearms and gnawing the meat off wooly mammoth bones.

But sadly, most people aren't doing this. In our world of unprecedented food surplus and cheap, empty calories, we have come full circle in our evolution. We are literally eating ourselves to death. What was once our asset (ingenuity in getting food) has become our liability. We have become too effective at procuring calories, and all of our technological innovations that extract calories from whole foods have resulted in hyper processed pre-packaged heart attacks littering the aisles of convenience stores.

Evolution follows a conservative pace, and genetically we are all still late Stone Agers. Paleolithic folks ate everything that they could get their hands on with minimal effort, and this is exactly the same mantra many folks follow today. Our technology has sped way past our genetic evolution. And if we could transplant a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer into today's world, he would quickly balloon into a morbidly obese heart disease patient.

So what are we, the evolutionary victors, to do now?

Perhaps we should take a few lessons from the Neanderthals.  They did endurance exercise.  They did anaerobic burst activity.  They performed feats of muscular strength.  They ate free range mammals.  They ate fruits, nuts and vegetables.  They were muscular and lean.  And you can be too – although bone-bowing strength may be beyond your reach. 

However, with the sudden popularity of paleo-type, evolutionary nutrition theories and meal plans, a word of caution is necessary.  Invoking ghosts from Paleolithic times to offer nutrition suggestions may be more fallacy than fact.  After all, our Neanderthal cousins and our own ancient parents ate they way they did out of necessity, not for a great set of abs.  Also, our ancient parents were a diverse group – some lean, some fat; some eating higher protein and fat diets, some eating higher carb diets; some living in more established settlements, and some always on the go. 

Therefore in part II of this article series, we'll take a closer look at some of the diverse backgrounds from whence we directly came (early Homo sapiens) and see if these glimpses offer any insight into the what we should be eating and why.

John Berardi, PhD, is the founder of Precision Nutrition, the world's largest nutrition coaching and education company. Berardi advises organizations like Apple, Equinox, and Nike. He's coached the San Antonio Spurs, the Carolina Panthers, US Open Champ Sloane Stephens, and 2-division UFC Champ Georges St-Pierre.