Neanderthals could speak like modern humans, study suggests

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An analysis of a Neanderthal's fossilised hyoid bone – a horseshoe-shaped structure in the neck – suggests the species had the ability to speak.

This has been suspected since the 1989 discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid that looks just like a modern human's.

But now computer modelling of how it works has shown this bone was also used in a very similar way.

Writing in journal Plos One, scientists say its study is "highly suggestive" of complex speech in Neanderthals.

The hyoid bone is crucial for speaking as it supports the root of the tongue. In non-human primates, it is not placed in the right position to vocalise like humans.

An international team of researchers analysed a fossil Neanderthal throat bone using 3D x-ray imaging and mechanical modelling.

This model allowed the group to see how the hyoid behaved in relation to the other surrounding bones.

Written By: Melissa Hogenboom
continue to source article at bbc.co.uk

24 COMMENTS

  1. “We would argue that this is a very significant step forward. It shows that the Kebara 2 hyoid doesn’t just look like those of modern humans – it was used in a very similar way.”

    Very interesting. But shouldn’t this read “it could have been used in a very similar way” ?

    Michael

    • In reply to #1 by mmurray:

      Very interesting. But shouldn’t this read “it could have been used in a very similar way” ?

      Think there are enough qualifiers in the rest of the article. I’m no expert, but cannot imagine any other function for such a specific adaptation.

      • In reply to #2 by Peter Grant:

        In reply to #1 by mmurray:

        Very interesting. But shouldn’t this read “it could have been used in a very similar way” ?

        Think there are enough qualifiers in the rest of the article. I’m no expert, but cannot imagine any other function for such a specific adaptation.

        I guess that’s what I was wondering. Could this have been used for something else ?

        I was also wondering about the red hair. But apparently some neanderthals had red hair.
        Interesting.

        Michael

    • In reply to #1 by mmurray:

      “We would argue that this is a very significant step forward. It shows that the Kebara 2 hyoid doesn’t just look like those of modern humans – it was used in a very similar way.”

      Very interesting. But shouldn’t this read “it could have been used in a very similar way” ?

      Michael

      It seems reasonable to me. Their explanation for saying this is good enough explanation in my view, to whit-

      This is because the internal microarchitecture is a response to the vectors and magnitudes of the forces to which it is routinely subjected.

      This is a known and understood process and if doubt is reasonably expressed there must be an alternate known mechanism or some known doubt about the first. All they are saying is that it was subject to very similar forces. This mightn’t have been coherent meaningful speech, but could have been frequent vocalisations.

        • In reply to #8 by Peter Grant:

          In reply to #7 by phil rimmer:

          This mightn’t have been coherent meaningful speech, but could have been frequent vocalisations.

          But don’t non-human primates vocalise quite a lot?

          Yes but its the quality of the vocalisations. As indicated also in the text regarding Heidelbergensis our common ancestor with Neanderthals the vocal tract reconstruction shows a form common to all three of us (and distinct from apes) also not mentioned is our common capacity for velar closure (blocking off the nasal cavity) conferring the ability to articulate m, n k and g. They were finishing a jigsaw that pretty much said we have all the kit for speech. We could make a very wide range of sounds indeed, seemingly all that we can now. The bony internal microstructures referenced implies that we did.

      • In reply to #7 by phil rimmer:

        This is a known and understood process and if doubt is reasonably expressed there must be an alternate known mechanism or some known doubt about the first. All they are saying is that it was subject to very similar forces. This mightn’t have been coherent meaningful speech, but could have been frequent vocalisations.

        Ah that’s clever. So it’s not just “they had bones and muscles that were capable of being used like ours” but “they had bones and muscles that were used like ours”. Very nice.

        Michael

          • In reply to #15 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #11 by mmurray:

            Told you, scientists generally say what they mean.

            Sure. But they often get “misquoted” by journalists who like a stronger statement than a careful scientific one. I thought it might have been such a case here but it seems not. I should have read the original article.

            So what’s the story with click languages versus spoken languages ?

            Michael

          • In reply to #16 by mmurray:

            So what’s the story with click languages versus spoken languages ?

            Click languages are spoken languages with actual words, just more complex than you’re used to. Try learning one and you will see.

          • In reply to #17 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #16 by mmurray:

            So what’s the story with click languages versus spoken languages ?

            Click languages are spoken languages, just more complex than you’re used to. Try learning one and you will see.

            I don’t doubt it but I thought like that post by Light Wave that I had seen somewhere that they were a historically early feature of languages. But (if I can believe wiki) that is probably not the case

            Clicks are often portrayed as a primordial feature of human language, a romantic reflection of the primordial lifestyle imagined of the speakers of Khoisan languages. One genetic study concluded that clicks, which occur in the languages of the genetically divergent populations Hadza and !Kung, may be an ancient element of human language.[19] However, this conclusion relies on several dubious assumptions (see Hadza language), and most linguists assume that clicks, being quite complex consonants, arose relatively late in human history.

            Michael

          • In reply to #18 by mmurray:

            I don’t really care if they are historically late or early, the people speaking them had exactly the same length of time to evolve. It might even be argued that since the Khoi are such an ancient people that their languages have had longer to evolve.

            Consider how new languages like Afrikaans are relatively simple and have far fewer words.

        • In reply to #11 by mmurray:

          In reply to #7 by phil rimmer:

          Ah that’s clever.

          Isn’t it? It occurs to me that the link Kim Probable provided referencing the great thoracic muscular capacity of the Neanderthals and the high air pressures and sound volumes that may have resulted could be some of the reason the hyoid bone muscles had such a lot of work to do. Heidelbergensis perhaps had the clearer likelihood of speaking being less thoracically developed and unable to develop the hyoid muscles by this other means. (I’m afraid this image of loud Neanderthals has recultivated in me, and quite unfairly, the Fred Gumby stereotype. Agitated Cleese Gumbies got the high pitch too.)

          The apparent co-evolution of improved hearing for all three (over, say, chimp hearing) does hint that the sounds produced by heidelbergensis where worth the effort. We needed to hear the specifics of the sounds.

    • In reply to The Headline:

      Neanderthals could speak like modern humans…

      …and Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Hugh Hewitt prove that modern humans can speak like Neanderthals. BA-DA-BOOM!

  2. They may have had a hyoid bone, but they could have been tongue tied due to perhaps the lack of a chin or something …I’m guessing they could make certain sounds but its a bit of a jump to suggest that complex language must have followed ! Khoi people are still using primitive click language that seemed to come before actual word language ? Could Neanderthal have just used a similar sounds language ?

  3. In relation to language, a book I would recommend is “Don’t Sleep, There are snakes” by Daniel L. Everett.

    It has a few themes running through it, linguistics, culture & adventure.

    The author is a field linquist who spent many years with a tribe in Sourth America who appeared to have an ancient language. On linguistics it can be a little dry at times but it introduces elements of language I was not familar with being an English speaker, such as how tone is used in some languages around the world. The book also covers click language and why it may have evolved. There were a couple of other novel ways to communicate also.

    The culture of the tribe he spent his time with is also eye opening as is the authors journey (he started as a missionary…)

    To keep on topic, after reading the book other linguistic elements like click language do not seem so simple.

  4. Regardless of whether they had speech like modern humans, I have no doubt that they could communicate in equally complex and varied ways. Their species and culture survived the tests of the Ice Ages and vast distances for hundreds of thousands of years, didn’t it?

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