Neanderthals Could Speak, Archaeologists Say

Whether they did is another matter, but a tiny bone in a 60,000-year old body found in Israel shows they had the potential.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

It has been established that many humans have Neanderthal genes: our ancestors did the nasty eons ago. Now it appears they may have cooed words of love as well, and in both directions. The hyoid bone in the 60,000-year body of a Neanderthal male, found in Israel, shows it to be remarkably like that of humans, as opposed to say apes.

Of course, whether the Neanderthals and humans could understand each other is another matter. But for the nonce, PLOS ONE reports, some scientists have concluded that Neanderthals evidently had the ability to emit speech. Whether they actually did, or how complex that speech is – we shall never know.

The hyoid is the horseshoe-shaped bone in the neck that supports your tongue. It is located between the chin and the cartilage, near the thyroid gland. The Neanderthal body on the other hand was found not in your throat but in Kebara Cave, by Zichron Yaakov, in 1989.

How likely is it that the Neanderthals talked? For one thing, writes the archaeological team headed by Ruggero D'Anastasio in their December 2013 paper, based on x-ray scans, the Neanderthal and human hyoids have "very similar internal architectures and micro-biomechanical behaviours."

That supports a hypothesis that they did talk: "Because internal architecture reflects the loadings to which a bone is routinely subjected, our findings are consistent with a capacity for speech in the Neanderthals," the team wrote.

the hyoid bones of humans and, for instance, chimpanzees are vastly different in appearance and biomechanics, the team demonstrates. They conclude that proto-humans developed a hyoid competent to produce speech a good half-million years ago.

The Kebara cave had been excavated before, by a team including renowned archaeologist Dorothy Garrod, back in the 1930s. But this particular Neanderthal man hadn't been found, only coming to the surface in 1983, and in excellent condition. At least the hyoid was, becoming the first such bone found in a Neanderthal body.

Perhaps further evidence that Neanderthals had what to say is evidence of symbolic thought. Once maligned as being closer to ape than man, that thinking started to change with the discovery of elaborate burials in Israel, featuring embellished, carved bones. Neanderthals evident wore jewelry, albeit possibly rather grisly in appearance: Perforated and pigmented shells, and teeth, were found in sites associated exclusively with the species in Spain.

It makes sense that they had speech to govern the manufacture, handling and possibly trade in these manipulated artifacts, not to mention the conceptualization of elaborate burial rituals. And maybe they could say to that cute human in the cave next door, Honey, let's make my bed rock.

This Neanderthal skull may look alien, seen against a human one in the background. But we share genes for skin and hair, and other things too, it seems.Credit: AP
A human hyoid bone as depicted by Gray's Anatomy.Credit: Wikimedia Commons