Neanderthals Could Speak, New Study Claims to Prove

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What did you say??
What did you say?? Reconstruction of NeanderthalCredit: PIERRE ANDRIEU - AFP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

To some it’s obvious that Neanderthals had language. To sustain and convey their cultural sophistication, they had to be able to speak, goes the argument. Now a new multidisciplinary approach, based on fossil evidence and modeling, claims to have categorically proven that they did.

The indirect evidence to date based on their sophistication. Whether or not Neanderthals produced art, their stone tool manufacture could be indistinguishable from that of our Homo sapiens ancestors, for instance. Neanderthals manufactured glue from birch tar to firmly attach spearheads to shafts, and how would they teach that down the generations, by grunting? Some even argue that the roots of language may lie a million years in the past, well before Homo sapiens began to evolve, based on similar arguments – cultural sophistication that would be challenging to pass down the generations without speaking.

Yet proving the existence of language in an extinct species is quite the conundrum. Now a new study categorically claims to show more direct evidence that they possessed the ability to produce human speech: “Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had similar auditory and speech capacities,” published in Nature Ecology and Evolution by an international multidisciplinary team with lead author Mercedes Conde-Valverde, of the University of Alcala in Madrid and others, including Binghamton University anthropology professor Rolf Quam and graduate student Alex Velez.

The results of their fossil analysis are “solid and clearly show the Neanderthals had the capacity to perceive and produce human speech,” Quam states, adding, “This is one of the very few current, ongoing research lines relying on fossil evidence to study the evolution of language, a notoriously tricky subject in anthropology.”

“I had no doubt that Neanderthals could speak the same way we do,” commented Prof. Israel Hershkovitz at Tel Aviv University, an expert on human evolution research, who was not involved in this study. Praising the paper, he points out that in 1990 Prof. Baruch Arensburg of TAU reported that based on the Neanderthal hyoid bone found at Kebara Cave in Israel, anatomically the Neanderthals were well equipped with all the structures required to produce a proper language, with consonants.

3-+D model and virtual reconstruction of the ear in a modern human (left) and the Amud 1 Neandertal found in Israel Credit: MERCEDES CONDE-VALVERDE

From this perspective the new paper simply confirms previous studies and well-accepted notions, Hershkovitz adds.

It bears adding that naturally, Arensburg’s paper had its critics based on our ignorance of how the hyoid bone and other laryngeal structures behave from birth to adulthood in the Neanderthal. The position of the hyoid in the Neanderthal and Homo sapiens may not have been the same as they matured, the critics suggested.

The new paper however further establishes that Neanderthals had the capacity for speech – and could hear us speaking too.

Can you hear me?

How did the researchers achieve this? The team created virtual 3-D models of the outer and middle ear structures of Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and hominins preceding to Neanderthals found in the Spanish site Atapuerca (which had been occupied for about a million years) based on high-resolution CT scans.

Here we might qualify that ancestral relations in the Homo genus are obscure. We still don’t have categorical proof who begat who, but we make assumptions. In any case the fossils at Atapuerca relevant to this study were taken as representative of Neanderthal ancestors, not necessarily as Neanderthal ancestors.

Next, the information produced using the 3D models was entered into a software-based “auditory bioengineering” model to gauge the beings’ hearing abilities up to 5 kilohertz , which encompasses most of the frequency range of modern human speech sounds, the University of Birmingham explains.

Can You Hear Me?Credit: YouTube

As one would expect, the Neanderthals had better hearing capacity between in the four to five kHz range, as we do, compared with the more archaic hominins from Atapuerca.

The Neanderthals were also more like us than the archaic folk in the frequency range of maximum sensitivity, technically known as the occupied bandwidth. The wider the bandwidth the more distinguishable acoustic signals the species could employ in vocal communication, which speaks to the efficiency of communication (delivering a message in the shortest amount of time).

“This really is the key,” says lead author Mercedes Conde-Valverde, professor at the Universidad de Alcalá in Spain. “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.”

What might Neanderthal speech have sounded like? It likely included a lot of consonants, Quam speculates. “Most previous studies of Neanderthal 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,” he says.

What is language, anyway? The association between sound and meaning, in accordance with local convention. If Neanderthals had language, like us, the languages would likely have demonstrated variation.

Apropos variation, note that the range of human vocalizations may be wider than some people realize, and that range of these communication efforts may be crucial – a kikiki sound can travel farther than ooaa-ooaa. But to demonstrate the potential range of available sounds we can create, take the “click” languages of southern Africa. English has about 45 sounds at its disposal, but the Taa language (aka !Xoon) spoken in Botswana and Namibia has over 100 consonant sounds – some think over 160 – as well as a few dozen vowels.

Apropos, some postulate that the click languages are archaic in origin and maybe even the earliest form of language, because the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari desert and region are among the oldest continuous cultures we know today.

Others pooh-poohing clicking as a  part of a theoretical ur-language point out that click languages are found today only in southern Africa and that these languages are highly elaborate.  It bears adding that click sounds may travel far, which is useful to hunter-gatherers stalking a prey animal and trying to coordinate strategy.

Reconstructed hearing patterns in modern humans, Neandertals and the Sima de los Huesos based on their ear anatomy. Credit: MERCEDES CONDE-VALVERDE

So did Neanderthals click? Heavens knows; we have no reason to think they did or didn’t, but the point is that they could produce the sounds we associate with human communication, and their ear was physically “tuned” to perceive human-type frequencies.

This fits in perfectly with the big picture of human evolution, which is that since we split from chimps around 7 million years ago, we gradually became increasingly more sophisticated at all sorts of levels, including changes in stone tool technology and domestication of fire. Which as said is taken by some to prove we had to have language from early on.

Just this week a paper from Tel Aviv University suggested a new theory for the evolution of the human brain, starting with Homo erectus. Though the earliest primates were fructivores and insectivores, by the time erectus arose, it was a hyper-carnivore and hunter that gradually helped wipe out the mega-animals it loved to eat. So hominins had to become smarter and more agile to catch smaller, fleeter animals.

Neanderthals of course ate mega-fauna too, and in fact went extinct before some of its favorite meals. When they split from our line is still argued, but apparently it happened say 800,000 to 700,000 years ago in Africa – by which time the innate capacity to have language would have existed, given that both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had it, according to the new paper.

Which doesn’t suggest early modern humans and Neanderthals had the same language. Though in some places they may have developed common tongue – we know they did mix and match.

In Israel archaeologists found teeth evidently from sapiens-Neanderthals hybrids in Manot Cave, northern Israel, dating to 38,000 years ago. Also, Neanderthals in the West Bank were using “Nubian Levallois” tools that had been thought to be the exclusive fief of Homo sapiens  – could that indicate inter-species communication? It’s an intriguing thought.

The team behind the new study has been developing this research line for nearly two decades, they add. “These results are particularly gratifying,” said Ignacio Martinez from Universidad de Alcalá in Spain. “We believe, after more than a century of research into this question, that we have provided a conclusive answer to the question of Neanderthal speech capacities.”

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