Neanderthals commonly suffered from surfer's ear

Genelle Weule
Swellnet Dispatch

You may be familiar with the annoying condition known as surfer's ear.

The ringing, fizzing and water-logged sensation combined with hearing loss and frequent infections is associated with a bony growth in the outer ear canal that's caused by long-term exposure to cold water or wind chill.

Despite its association with modern water sports, human species have suffered from surfer's ear — technically known as external auditory exostoses — for thousands of years.

"It's been very well known in prehistoric human skeletons for a long time," said palaeoanthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University.

But it appears from new research published by Professor Trinkaus and colleagues it was much more common in Neanderthals than in early modern humans or most people living today.

They said the finding, published in the journal PLOS One, suggested Neanderthals may have spent time around waterways foraging for food and other resources.

"There have been arguments that Neanderthal spend very little time exploiting these resources, which can be extremely rich," Professor Trinkaus said.

Indeed, he said, no archaeological evidence of fish bones or tools for fishing have been found with Neanderthal remains.

"This is an indirect, biological form of evidence that they were spending a rather substantial amount of time exploiting aquatic resources.

"It sheds a further window on the capabilities, the adaptability of Neanderthals, that over the years, and still today by some people, are very much maligned and denigrated," he said.

Cold water or air causes bone growths in the outer ear canal. (Wikimedia: staff (2014))

Neanderthals lived throughout Europe and southwest and central Asia from 400,000 years ago up until about 40,000 years ago.

During this time the climate cycled between colder and warmer phases, and Neanderthals crossed paths with other species of humans, including early modern humans.

Professor Trinkaus and colleagues wanted to explore whether they could use the prevalence of surfer's ear in Neanderthals to glean information about their behaviour.

To do so, they compared the ear canals of 24 Neanderthals with those found in 45 fossils of early modern humans that lived in Europe either towards the end or just after the Neanderthal era, as well as a handful of other ancient human fossils.

While around a quarter of the early modern humans had growths — a frequency that was similar to a small sample of people living today — around half the Neanderthals examined had mild to severe bony growths.

The La Chapelle-aux-Saints Neanderthal skull, with the external auditory exostoses ("surfer's ear" growths) in the left canal indicated. Image: Erik Trinkaus

But not all of the Neanderthals with the condition lived in extreme cold locations or times.

"Some of them were living in very cold phases in Europe and France as far north as Belgium. Others were living in the Mediterranean area during a climatic period not all that different to today," Professor Trinkaus said.

"What this tells is that they were frequently exposed [to cold moist air] in different climates."

Also, while some of the Neanderthal fossils were dug up along the coast in Gibraltar and Israel, others were found inland.

But that didn't necessarily preclude them from water activities, Professor Trinkaus said.

"These people were highly mobile on the landscape so where they were buried was part of their territory, their range, but it wasn't necessarily where they were most active in foraging or other kinds of activities."

"They all lived somewhere near water sources, it's a matter of how big they were."

Did Neanderthals forage for marine resources?

The new study adds to research that suggests Neanderthals may have had a wider range of food sources than previously suggested, said Steve Wroe, director of the Function, Evolution and Anatomy Research Lab at the University of New England.

"For a very long time it was considered Neanderthals basically went around with big pointy sticks getting in close and dirty with big hairy animals and killing them," Professor Wroe said.

"There's no doubt they were effective hunters, but it's become increasingly clear they certainly ate vegetable matter, they certainly fitted a bit more of a real hunter gather sort of group than just a purely carnivorous low-tech, high incidence-of-injury kind of people."

But, he said, even though the latest research certainly shows a much higher incidence of bony growths in Neanderthals than modern humans, this was "hardly conclusive" it was due to the exploitation of aquatic resources.

Luca Fiorenza of Monash University, who has studied the diet of Neanderthals, is also yet to be convinced our ancient cousins regularly hunted fish or other aquatic species.

Dr Fiorenza said shellfish and butchered bones of whales and dolphins found near Neanderthal remains in coastal areas indicated they consumed aquatic resources, but the lack of tools suggested they were scavengers.

"The problem is we have no evidence of tools that give direct evidence of Neanderthals hunting or fishing," he said.

Nor is there any evidence of fish bones with any of the skeletons, although, he said, this could be because fish bones are very delicate.

Dr Fiorenza said if the bony growths were related to water-based activity then the Neanderthals would have had to be in the water frequently.

"I'm not excluding the fishing component," he said, "but if you just fish a couple of times probably you wouldn't be able to develop this feature on the auditory canal."

"If there is a strong correlation between behaviour and this anatomical feature ... you would expect to find more archaeological evidence to suggest a strong exploitation of aquatic resources."

Isotopic analysis of chemicals in Neanderthal bones also points to a primarily terrestrial animal-based diet, he added.

Additionally, there may be a range of other factors at play.

"Generally Neanderthal have much thicker bones, so I don't know if that has any relation with the fact they've found this additional bone deposition in the ear canal," he said.

The researchers agreed that other factors such as genetic predisposition, and perhaps poor sanitation may play a role.

But this would not account for all the overall higher frequency, Professor Trinkaus said.

Fast forward thousands of years, and the condition is just as common in one subset of modern humans as that seen in Neanderthals.

Today, between 38 and 80 per cent of recreational and professional surfers have varying degrees of the condition.

© Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.


frog's picture
frog's picture
frog commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 7:52am

The coastal neanderthals were obviously keen body surfers. TBB will have proof somewhere is an old newspaper clipping.


mackemabroad's picture
mackemabroad's picture
mackemabroad commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 8:34am

Just had the op done and i am suffering pretty bad with roaring tinitus and 50% hearing loss. Add to that at least another 8 weeks drydocked! Anyone else had a rough time after the operation?

Finnbob the terror's picture
Finnbob the terror's picture
Finnbob the terror commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 12:05pm

Sounds like you have been to a butcher to get your ear done.
These days the guy that we all go too on the peninsula has you back in the water with in 3 to 4 weeks and not much pain.
I was surfing 18 days later.
Yours sounds like the old opp from 1984

mackemabroad's picture
mackemabroad's picture
mackemabroad commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 3:01pm

Doc reckons the bone growths were really close to the ear drum, so hopefully it settles down after going through a bit of trauma. Was told 12 weeks out of the water but thats not happening!

MidWestMonger's picture
MidWestMonger's picture
MidWestMonger commented Monday, 19 Aug 2019 at 10:35am

After the op you'll get some scab tissue come out of the ear which is good, the skin has repaired. I'd wait till you feel wax coming out again. Then the skin is protected from infection and its back in the water

sneakerset's picture
sneakerset's picture
sneakerset commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 8:52am

Well this article is all the proof my wife needs to draw some wild conclusions and make a direct link between my surfers ear condition to that of a neanderthal :0 I'll never hear the end of it. Lets try to keep this article from spreading into the mainstream media.

goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 9:18am

Obviously hadn’t heard about blu-tac back then

Supafreak's picture
Supafreak's picture
Supafreak commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 9:38am

Sorry to read your having problems makemabroad it’s one of the reasons I put having the op off for so long. Had the left ear done last year 8 weeks out of the water but all good and had right ear done in May this year and only 4 weeks out of the water again all good. If anyone is looking for a great surgeon ENT specialist I highly recommend Dr. John Malouf at Coolangatta, good bloke and excellent surgeon . I didn’t have private health insurance so it cost me $10,000 all up , you can go on public waiting list which is about 14 months but you can’t choose your surgeon and most likely you will get someone just starting out in this field with someone experienced watching over them. I didn’t want to wait or have a rookie so just sucked it up and paid the $10 G

Ash's picture
Ash's picture
Ash commented Tuesday, 20 Aug 2019 at 12:17pm

Supafreak down here in SA it took 8 years for my 1st op on the public waiting list, next ear should be done early next year. It wasn't a pleasant experience the 1st 2 weeks were painful until the splints came out and they gave me Oxi- something or other ( an opiate ) that did nothing for the pain, just made me sway in the breeze, ordinary aspirin or panadol worked well. 10 weeks after the op I went to Bali for 2 weeks and scored an infection which took 2 months to fully clear. I was using the new SurfEars pugs which work ok but let a tiny amount of water in, I'm not blaming the plugs Bali's a bug heaven so it was a learning curve for me, be patient and let the scab inside the canal heal properly. Straight after I got the all clear from the ENT specialist I went to an audiologist and got a custom plug ordered, best thing I did as it works perfectly and keeps the area around the ear canal opening protected as well, and doesn't come out so no annoying lead to contend with.

Stupot's picture
Stupot's picture
Stupot commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 10:28am

I don’t recall giving permission for Swellnet to use my photo?

Unemployment isn't working...

surfstarved's picture
surfstarved's picture
surfstarved commented Monday, 19 Aug 2019 at 10:04am

I'm glad I read through the comments before posting myself. You beat me to it Stupot.

Don't let the bastards grind you down

Joshy2000's picture
Joshy2000's picture
Joshy2000 commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 11:14am

Supafreak, is that 10k for both ears, or per ear?

Supafreak's picture
Supafreak's picture
Supafreak commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 8:11pm

Joshy 2000 , it was $5000 per ear $10,000 total , I’m 58 been surfing since 10 , l had less than 1mm gap and water trapped in canal was driving me insane , should have done it years ago but was freaked out by horror stories , they have better procedures today so go for it but check out your surgeon first.

Finnbob the terror's picture
Finnbob the terror's picture
Finnbob the terror commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 11:53am

Had the opp 2 yrs ago best thing I have done, Had taken advise from other people to wait as long as possible, should've got it done as soon as there was a problem and would recommend getting it done sooner than later.
18 days out of the water, compared to years of ear infections and pain.
Now as soon as the water temp goes bellow 16 degrees or if its windy and cold I wear a hood, no plugs. This has stopped the growth getting worse in the other ear.
If you have kids who surf get them to wear a hood in cold conditions.
It's not just the water getting in the ear it's the cold around the ear that can cause the growth. So I've been told.

mackemabroad's picture
mackemabroad's picture
mackemabroad commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 3:02pm

Anyone know of a decent brand of earplugs that dont make you completely deaf!

sneakerset's picture
sneakerset's picture
sneakerset commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 7:05pm

Try Surf Ears. The best ones I've come across that got me off the blu tac.

truebluebasher's picture
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truebluebasher commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 3:36pm

Great story deserves a kicker,right Frog!
Upon request tbb will have a crack at the Surfing DNA sequence.
Let's wade in a little, while waiting for neanderthal velocityjohnno to swing on by.

Neanderthal Surf history exclusive ~~~~^~~~~/(`~~~~/(C`...[swellnet )

Pre-historic Toe dip era.
4.4 b y/o Earth was Flat & Saltwater Oceans formed but not Surf

4.4 b y/o W.A Stromatolites were 1st Saltwater beings.(Still sucking it up!)

4.4 b y/o W.A Zircon ...1st sea bathers- Hot Magma surfs with Cool Seawater.

3.9 b y/o Arctic Graphite was 1st underwater Ocean camper.

3.7 b y/o Arctic Cone Stromatolites were 1st seabed risers

3.5 b y/o Tassie + Sth Africa Microbial Mats were 1st Shoreline waders.

Wave pool period
3.5 b y/o W.A. Geyserite the 1st wavepool surfers

Sea Pod Period
540 m y/o Sth OZ Ediacara Biota 1st swimming sea creatures

Migrations (Africa & India) Surf History not included in this Timeline. (Another time!)
Note: Canoe- Kenu (African-dugout canoe) + Surf -Suffe (Indian -Coastline)

800,000 y/o Sea Craft reflects origin of shoreline re: (Bamboo,Mangrove,Reeds)
Navigation by Moon/Stars even (String) on Spring Tides or Trade Winds

New wave Period
800,000 y/o K'gari oldest/largest Sand Dune Island shapes up waves.(Sandy Straits)

800,000 y/o K'gari Fish & Dolphins surf waves & Turtles bodysurf ashore to dunes.

Wave Models...
Ancient Oz Yowie' 1st beachcombers of 1st East Coast beach breaks.
Oz Small Hairies 1st Surf / weather Forecasters re: Beach cave wind sounds.

Tassie SUP Reed Canoes > Antarctica > Sth America + 5,000 y/o Raft Trade to China.

Yowie + Hairies + Bundjalung share North Coast NSW beaches in modern era.

Party wave period...
10,000's y/o Bundjalung Siren sweeps up 1st Large northbound wave
10,000's y/o Bundjalung Bro's wipeout canoe surfing 1st big wave bodysurf ashore.
10,000's y/o Jabreen swims to horizon & bodysurfs for kicks & fires up point breaks.
10,000's y/o Gowanda bodysurfs as a Dolphin to domesticate hunting Dolphins.
10,000's y/o Siren sings to Dolphin Lifeguards forming a Rainbow Shark Shield.
Symbiotic Dolphin relationship is stranger than fiction...tbb links a one o/s example ...

Age old Surf Stories detailing Climactic Events for monumental Surf History.

10'000's y/o Beerburrum is known to spend most time paddling in the Ocean.
10,000's y/o Qld/NSW border Aboriginal surf festivals of many surf canoe designs.
Canoe Designs from Sth >Nth: Fantail /Moulded / Stitched / Rolled / Resin Glued
Many Shaped Logs / Matted Rafts / Hand boards / Paddle or spear are also used.

Continental Drifters
2,600 bc Peru SUP Cabillito is an offshoot of introduced Tassie SUP Reed Canoe

2,000 bc Polynesesian Body surfers...possible Driftwood surfcraft
1,200 bc Hawaiian Surfboards (Olo + Alaia+ Paipo)re: Nth American Cedar Driftwood
700 bc Greece/Turkey Black Sea Viya (body surfer 'Salute') Recreational
500 bc Chinese - 'Ceremonial' Stand -up Flag waving surfing of Bore Wave

Countries crossing this timeline are only just unravelling surf history-Japan / U.K / U.S.
River Rafters & later springboarderz invent most Surfboard moves & Terminology

Oz Pro Surfing period
1819 Newcastle Bogie Hole 1st Surf Baths
1829 Tweed -Moreton Convict 1st Pro Surf / Rafters to export Craft.
1852 Sandgate 1st Bay waves bodysurfing
1864 Main Beach 1st Surfside bodysurfing
1910 Main Beach/Currumbin 1st ? Oz made 'Stand up' Surfboards
1911 Yamba- Manly 1st Hawaiian (Import) Surf Board
1912 bodyboards (duck/spring boards + defunct coach seats) Cross Surfboard era.
1914/5 Duke Tour 1st Night Arenas were Kick board Demos / Sea Swimming.
Tow Aquaplanes , Inflatable Surf Mats, Flippers, skim surfers, coolite, poly boards etc.

Happy to share Surf history with swellnet crew!

frog's picture
frog's picture
frog commented Monday, 19 Aug 2019 at 9:03am

First surfers? Probably those very early africans who lived on the ocean and scoured the seabed for food leading to our adaptation for breath holding etc.
A lot of human characteristics suggest humans were well adapted to diving in oceans, lakes and rivers.

No experienced ocean diver, in the water day in day out foraging for food, would pass up a free ride back to shore on a wave.

Body surfing would been practiced for perhaps a million years. There would be a high chance some of our ancestors did it for fun.


GuySmiley's picture
GuySmiley's picture
GuySmiley commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 4:43pm

I had both ears done and was back in the water well within 4 weeks. No infection nor tinitus to speak of but my jaw on my left side periodically locked up with momentarily sharp pain for about 3 years after (my left ear was 95%+ blocked and needed lots of drilling out). My surgeon was gun in my case driving directly down the ear canal (I think he heads up the ENT ward at the local private hospital and teaches the technique to other surgeons).

If you're thinking of surgery suggest getting done early to minimise surgical issues and time out of water. Extremely important to get the right guy.

.... back to the article, very interesting. I have also heard there is a heredity link to exostoses and this was shown up in my children who did not surf as children but swam to an elite level. Even though they mostly trained in heated pools both now suffer from water retention issues, especially so my daughter who "retired" from the pool 2 plus years before my son. My younger sister who has never surfed or swam routinely suffers ear infections caused by water retention from showering.

As an aside on heredity medical issues I recently had treatment for dupuytren's contracture. Essentially, it's the gradual but permanent curling of one or more fingers. But get this its a medical condition linked directly back to the Vikings (as confirmed by my GP and surgeon) so somewhere along the way my forefathers/mothers must have came in contact with Vikings.

savanova's picture
savanova's picture
savanova commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 5:40pm

I had both ears done now got no excuses for not hearing the missus. While in there the doc looks at my nose and said it didn't work either, funny thing was I didnt know it wasn't working as was broken by a cricket ball to the face in primary school and a couple of fights in high school so I was just used to it. After nose reconstruction every breath was a sensory overload. Anyways second surf back after nose job my snoz was still fragile I was duck diving a solid set and turned my head to save my nose and the white wash pushed my board up onto my ear and the impact perforated my ear drum and I nearly drowned as I had no idea which way was up as I wore 4 more on the head. No issues now though.

shraz's picture
shraz's picture
shraz commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 6:26pm

I've encountered Neanderthals in the surf all over modern day Australia. Usually hogging waves at good breaks on oversized boards and sometimes even riding surf mats. They grunt during take offs and whinge about duck dives.
My ears are rooted too.

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 6:47pm

Many of us reading will have between 1 and 4% Neanderthal DNA.
Naughty times between indigenous ancestors.

frog's picture
frog's picture
frog commented Sunday, 18 Aug 2019 at 7:10pm

If you have the operstion, i have heard the bone grows back faster the second time. So blu tac time - everytime. You get used to it and it is nice not getting water flushed deep into your ear canal.


truebluebasher's picture
truebluebasher's picture
truebluebasher commented Monday, 19 Aug 2019 at 1:16am

tbb suffers from Bodysurfers Ear as do swimmers from fluid rotation manoeuvres.
Swimmers doing lop sided Pool Turns & Bodysurfers doing spins & barrel rolls.
If you constantly get pitched & tumble free without gravity board then you're next.

By shock warping an upended fluid body you can lose your marbles & direction.
Gravity anchors gymnasts of aerial & material sports but free-form swim is fluid.
Usually it's repetitive fluid shocks of Swimmers head turning or pool end rotations.
tbb can advise it only takes just one awkward move, like a poorly timed Barrel Roll.
Spatial coordination system goes haywire & can't compensate in so much aborts.
Takes a little while to lose the plot...a good few hours to half a day later.

Otoconia crystals escape the Utricle via fluid then come to rest at the cupula.
Spatial coordination is lost, you now experience freefall & rolling when body is still.
Inflammation of the inner ear Labyrinthitis or Benign Paroxysmal Position Vertigo

tbb had 6 bouts in 6 years...the 1st bout lasts 3 months & is usually the worst.
Sadly it takes less shock each time to bring on following bouts lasting only 1 month.

Good News! There is a reverse manoeuvre that can speed up recovery + Bad news!
Spin out video shows a clever trick that sufferers find impossible to comprehend.
You really do need a trained professional + Infra Red-Vid Goggles (50%-75% fix)

1980 Dr John Epley reverse rolls the crystals like a hand held labyrinth ball maze.

1.Here's someone losing their marbles...doesn't know up from down.

2. Resurfing the wave backwards in your head puts you on the path to recovery.

tbb feels for crew with Surfers Ear one wants either nor both nor another!

nipper77's picture
nipper77's picture
nipper77 commented Monday, 19 Aug 2019 at 9:22am

Had my right one done 3 years ago (left one wasn't as bad) and no issues. Surgeon was a gun and back in water 6/8weeks later. Use SURF EARS now and there awesome


JosephStalin's picture
JosephStalin's picture
JosephStalin commented Monday, 19 Aug 2019 at 10:21am

Got both mine done in public system I was shuffled through pretty quickly

Spuddups's picture
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Spuddups commented Monday, 19 Aug 2019 at 2:22pm

My ears are both about 90% closed up. The doctor reckons he can't see my eardrums. I don't get any infections or trapped water for some reason though so I've decided not to get them drilled. I wear a hood year round which probably helps. My hearing's mostly okay except when the Mrs is telling me I can't go surfing. He he ;-)

Spearman's picture
Spearman's picture
Spearman commented Tuesday, 20 Aug 2019 at 9:57pm

Got one ear drilled 6 years ago and no issues now and the other is buggered can’t go in the water without getting ear infections. Been nearly 3 yrs on public wait list for this one.
Got a hearing test done recently and found the drilled canal has worse hearing of high frequencies than that of the one that is closed over.