"Naughty Neandertals" did what?

3 minute read

Gretchen found this one:

Naughty Neanderthals nixed monogamy

Oh, no. Where is this going?

Emma Nelson of the University of Liverpool and a team of researchers combed through literature on early human-like primates in search of fossils that contained hands with intact index and ring fingers (the second and fourth digits).

Oh, no. Now I can see where this is going. It’s the magical anthropometric: the 2D:4D digit ratio!

Though highly contentious, studies indicate that men who receive high levels of androgen before birth are more likely to be stronger, faster, and more sexually competitive. Women who receive high levels of androgen may have similar traits.

Well, it’s true – a number of studies have found 2D:4D correlated with lots of things. My favorite is the one about international athletes:

We have found that low 2D:4D ratio is associated with a high level of attainment across a number of sports and also with high mental rotation scores. Professional football players had lower 2D:4D ratios than controls; 1st team players had lower ratios than youth team members or reserves; international players had lower 2D:4D ratios than those who have not yet represented their Country; and in a one-tailed test, 2D:4D ratio was negatively related to number of international appearances after the affect of Country was removed. We suggest that low 2D:4D ratio in men is a correlate for high ability in many sports, including football (Manning and Taylor 2001).

The problem is that the ratios have a high variability within groups like this. So that the 2D:4D ratio may be correlated with performance, but it’s a poor predictor of performance. It’s not like you’d want to measure this ratio on one person and then start talking about whether he would be a good football player.

Of course, if you’re dealing with fossil hominins, then you’re stuck with what you can dig up:

Nelson's work suggests the same holds true for most primates living today, but the team wanted to see how our ancient relatives stacked up. They found two Neanderthals and one Australopithecus afarensis skeleton with the first bones of the index and ring fingers intact enough detail to do the job.

The digit ratio varies a lot within humans, much more than its correlation with anything. So it would take a very extreme ratio in these two Neandertals to say you had any significant evidence of anything – we’re talking, outside the human range. And since we’re not talking about complete hands, but instead parts of hands, I don’t think we’re going to get there.

Well, what about Australopithecus?

A. afarensis, made famous by the popular "Lucy" skeleton, lived between 4 and 3 million years ago, long before modern humans. Its short ring finger hints that it was faithful to a single mate, but Nelson says that doesn't sit well.
"These were small creatures that probably lived in groups and were being eaten by predators." she said. "How do you keep from mating with different members of the group?"

I’m sure the conclusion of monogamous early hominins would make Owen Lovejoy happy, but it’s really just utter sheer speculation, which a quote from Nelson clarifies later in the article. Nelson has a good website, where we can see where her research is going. The description along the same lines, but more reasonable than the “Naughty Neanderthals” article – the idea is that we already know that the 2D:4D ratio varies within primate species and that it has several interesting social correlates within some species. For example, it correlates with social rank in female macaques. So there’s some reason to think that it might vary among species in a way that reflects social systems, which (according to Nelson) they’ve found.

I just want to remind people of the obvious: 2D:4D may be correlated with mating system in primates, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good predictor of mating system. Canine dimorphism, which has been studied for a long time in relation to sexual dimorphism and mating competition, isn’t even that good a predictor of mating system. And even if the mean were a good predictor among species, doesn’t mean that an individual ratio is a good predictor of the species mean.

As fossil hominins go, I wouldn’t expect the story to go any further – there just aren’t many hands, so there’s never going to be a significantly predictive result.

And as stories go, this one could have been a lot worse. After all, the digit ratio is also correlated with homosexuality in men. I’m surprised the headline wasn’t “Fingers Point to Gay Neanderthals”.


Manning JT, Taylor RP. 2001. Second to fourth digit ratio and male ability in sport: Implications for sexual selection. Evol Hum Behav 22:61-69. doi:10.1016/S1090-5138(00)00063-5