Washington, May 3 : A new research has determined that Neanderthals had big mouths that they were able to open unusually wide.
The study was carried out by Yoel Rak, a professor of anatomy at Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine, and William Hylander, an expert on jaw biomechanics at Duke University.
Neanderthals lived in parts of Europe and Asia for more than 400,000 years, then disappeared some 30,000 years ago.
According to a report in National Geographic News, the study found that a combination of facial structure, forward-positioned molars, and an unusually large gap between the vertical parts of the back of the jaw allowed Neanderthals to gape widely.
It has been noted by researchers that modern humans and our direct ancestors didn't have these traits.
But, the team was unable to measure exactly how far Neanderthals could open their mouths.
"This ability is connected to the length of the muscle fibers, which, of course, we don't have," said Rak.
The scientists believe the large space behind Neandertals' molars created a geometry that allowed them to take extremely large bites.
According to researchers, this is perhaps an adaptation to the size of the food Neanderthals ate, although they caution that the exact reason for the wide gape remains an enigma.
The omnivorous species had an extremely varied diet-from vegetation to reindeer-and they knew how to butcher and cook meat.
"They didn't have to put a whole animal leg in their mouths," noted Alan Mann, a physical anthropologist at Princeton University. "I would suspect that the Neanderthals were probably as adept as we are in cutting their food into manageable sizes," he added.
According to Mann, a large mouth structure may not have been exclusive to Neanderthals, but was also present in earlier human species.
"Instead of eating habits, the change in gape size may be due more to the evolution of the skull: as the braincase expanded, the face moved under it," he said.
"What has changed is the architecture that we begin to see in modern humans, where the face and the braincase have different kinds of structural relationships. This has produced a change in our ability to open our mouths," he added.