Virtual reconstructions of Neanderthal ears show that our extinct cousins had the same physical capacity for hearing as modern humans, and by inference could also make the same sounds we can – although whether they actually spoke a language is still unknown.
“We don’t know if they had a language, but at least they had all the anatomical parts needed to have the kind of speech that we have,” says Mercedes Conde-Valverde at the University of Alcalá in Spain. “It’s not that they had the same language, not English, not Spanish, nothing like this. But if we could hear them, we would recognise that they were humans.”
Conde-Valverde and her colleagues used medical imaging software to create virtual reconstructions of Neanderthal external and middle ear cavities, based on CT scans of their skulls. With these models, they could determine the range of sounds that Neanderthals could hear, and thus probably produce as speech. This technique has previously been used to study speech and hearing in other ancient humans and chimps.
The team also did the same for a group of fossils known as the Sima de los Huesos hominins that are thought to be the immediate ancestors of Neanderthals. The results showed that, unlike these ancestors, Neanderthals had the same capacity for hearing as modern humans.
Neanderthal hearing was optimised towards production of consonants that often appear in modern human languages, such as “s”, “k”, “t” and “th”, in the same way our hearing is, says Conde-Valverde.
While we don’t know if this means they had the mental capacity for language development, Conde-Valverde says that recent archaeological evidence, including stone tool use, jewellery making and art hint towards complex behaviour in Neanderthals that could indicate language ability.
“It becomes more and more hard to dismiss the fact that probably they had some sort of speech,” says Dan Dediu at Lumière University Lyon 2 in France. It was likely very similar to ours, but not identical, he says.
Journal reference: Nature Ecology and Evolution, DOI: 10.1038/s41559-021-01391-6
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