• Robb G. Best

Study Finds Neanderthals Had Capacity for Speech

Neanderthals, the closest species to humans, have only been extinct for something like 40,000 years. Which is to say, they shared the planet with humans for thousands of years. Unfortunately, the overlap occurred well before the invention of written language, and much of what we believe about these mysterious people comes down to guessing.

What was their culture like? Why did they die out? And perhaps of the most interest to us, what were their interactions like with early humans?

We will probably never have a clear picture of those answers, but now scientists tell us that Neanderthals had at least one more thing in common with humans: they had, at the very least, the ability to produce and understand speech.

For years, one of the most intriguing questions about our evolutionary relatives (not just Neanderthals, but also the even more mysterious Denisovans) has been whether or not they could verbally communicate. Some controversial studies aside, in modern times, we often like to think that language is one of the factors that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Additionally, when it came to Neanderthals, there had long been a theory that the species failed to flourish like us because they lacked the tools for more complex bonding and social interaction.

Now, new anatomical evidence suggests, whether or not they used it, that Neanderthals did have speech and language processing capabilities. Along with lead author Mercedes Conde-Valverde, professor at the Universidad de Alcalá in Spain, a team of researchers from Binghamton University used CT scans and fossils to create three-dimensional models of ear canals of Neanderthals, Homo sapiens, and an early precursor to the Neanderthal. This data was entered into software that estimated each model's hearing abilities up to 5 kHz, which covers most human speech sounds. The Neanderthal ear scored more similarly to a human than the proto-Neanderthal, specifically in the 4-5 kHz range.

The team also calculated the frequency range of maximum sensitivity (sometimes called "occupied bandwidth") in each species. Basically, the wider the bandwidth, the more sounds that can be easily distinguished from each other and used in aural communication. The more sounds a being can use, the more efficient their aural communication can be, allowing them to convey a precise message in a short amount of time. Again, the Neanderthal range more closely resembled humans than its ancestor.

“This really is the key,” says Conde-Valverde. “The presence of similar hearing abilities, particularly the bandwidth, demonstrates that the Neandertals possessed a communication system that was as complex and efficient as modern human speech.”

Binghamton University professor Rolf Quam notes that the study results also suggest that Neanderthals probably used more consonants. “Most previous studies of Neandertal speech capacities focused on their ability to produce the main vowels in English spoken language. However, we feel this emphasis is misplaced, since the use of consonants is a way to include more information in the vocal signal and it also separates human speech and language from the communication patterns in nearly all other primates. The fact that our study picked up on this is a really interesting aspect of the research and is a novel suggestion regarding the linguistic capacities in our fossil ancestors.”

It appears that Neanderthals had the ability to produce and register the same sorts of sounds we use to communicate in our daily lives. We know that Neanderthals interacted with early humans--our genetic code shows that some populations of humans still have sequences in our DNA derived from Neanderthals--but this tantalizing new glimpse into this archaic species inevitably makes us wonder if those interactions included verbal conversation.

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