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Could Neanderthals Speak?

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Recent research suggests Neanderthals had speech capacity.

neanderthal, speech, capacity

Once upon a time, we, Homo sapiens, weren’t the only species of human roaming the earth. One of our sister species, Neanderthals, or Homo neanderthalensis, is a prime illustration of this.

Until not too long ago, they were often depicted as stereotypical brutish cavemen. However, as we learned more and more about our burly cousins, that picture had to be reassessed. Neanderthals, we know now, possessed a refined culture, crafted tools, weapons, jewelry and shelters. They buried their dead and possibly produced cave paintings. Not quite the grunting primitive cavemen, are they?

But surely our capacity for language sets us apart from them? Perhaps, though, Neanderthals could speak. A new study reappraised a Neanderthal hyoid bone found in the Kebara Cave in Israel in 1989. Anatomically, it looks a lot like the hyoid bones we all have buried in our neck muscles. But, just because it looks the same doesn’t mean it’s used in the same way. Hence controversy remained.

Now, using new imaging and computational methods, the bone was scrutinized once again by an international team of researchers from Italy, Australia and Canada. The resulting paper can be found on PLOS ONE.
Through the implementation of state-of-the-art techniques, the authors were able to investigate the mechanical behavior of the hyoid bone while keeping its complex inner and surrounding structures and tissues in mind.

When comparing the mechanical behaviour of the Neanderthal bone to its counterpart in H. sapiens, they found that the two bones, which are crucial for speech, were virtually indistinguishable. The models they built included a fine-grained representation of the bones’ internal composition and adjacent musculature.

In other words, the part of the vocal tract that is highly important for the production of complex speech was probably used by Neanderthals much like we use it today.

Of course, as the authors themselves note, this does not unambiguously prove that Neanderthals were vocal masters to the degree that we are. The sample size was small and more comparative studies should be undertaken to strengthen the findings, including the incorporation of chimpanzee hyoids.

Nevertheless (and leaving aside the sometimes surprising complexity of bird and whale songs for now), perhaps we should be willing to entertain the idea that we might once have shared our capacity of weaving complex webs of syntax and semantics with closely related human species.

Just imagine those (highly speculative, of course) conversations…


D’Anastasio, R.; Wroe, S.; Tuniz, C.; Mancini, L.; Cesana, D.T.; Dreossi, D.; Ravichandiran, M.; Attard, M.; Parr, W.C.H.; Agur, A. & Capasso, L. (2013). Micro-Biomechanics of the Kebara 2 Hyoid and its Implications for Speech in Neanderthals. PLOS ONE. 8(12): e82261. Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082261.
talk, hyoid bone, neanderthal, speech, capacity, speak

This post was written by Gunnar de Winter:
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