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Neanderthals may have had something to say3 min read

March 8, 2021 3 min read


Neanderthals may have had something to say3 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes
To begin to figure out whether Neanderthals could talk, researchers studied fossilized ear bones, to reconstruct how and what our early ancestors heard.
The fossilised skull of a Neanderthal. Image: The National History Museum, London

You’ve probably seen them in the movies and read about them in your history books. They’re homo sapiens closest ancient ancestors, and like any relatives that resurface after ages, they’re here to tell you: We’re closer than you’d think.

That’s right! It is time to talk about our hunting-gathering cavepeople relatives: Neanderthals. If you travelled back 130,000 years and encountered one of them, you’d probably expect to meet a bunch of grunting bozos. But oh! you will be gobsmacked, because our extinct relatives were a lot more sophisticated than you’d think. They may have even had the gift of the gab.

To answer one of the most pressing questions about our ancient relatives, “Could they talk?”, researchers in Spain have taken an unorthodox approach. Rather than study the voice box and mouth which relies heavily on unavailable soft tissue for its use, they decided to use hearing to decode talking. Fortunately, fossilised ear bones from Neanderthals hearing systems have been preserved.

They could definitely hear it all

A virtual reconstruction of the ear in a modern human (left) and a Neanderthal skull. Whether Neanderthals, and other human ancestors, were capable of sophisticated spoken language has been a topic of long-standing debate in human evolution.
A 3D reconstruction of the Neanderthal ear. Image: CNN

The researchers used 3D modelling and computers to reconstruct a complete functioning neanderthal ear and based on that, infer how it perceived sound. Once they had their scans and models, they found something remarkable. Turns out that their ears listen much as we do. Neanderthal ears are physically optimised to process consonants just like modern humans. Their ears had been finely tuned to hear sounds such as “s”, “k”, “t”, and even complex sounds such as “th”! Why would that be the case if they were not using these sounds in speech?

“It is satisfying to find further confirmation that Neanderthals really were Neander-talkers.”

Dr. Sverker Johansson

Moreover, upon analysis of the ears of the Neanderthal’s closest relatives, the hominids of Sima De Los Huesos, scientists found something different. These older humans ears were, in fact, not optimised for human speech. This means that Neanderthals were probably the earliest humans relatives to begin speaking.

Owliver’s Obscure Observation: Sima De Los Huesos is a mass grave in Spain that is a treasure trove of pre-historic fossils. Recently, the discovery of 400,000-year-old hominid fossils in Sima de Los Huesos led scientists to believe that humans may have once hibernated.

The Pit of Bones: A Death Chamber Time Capsule – Naturalis Historia
Sima De Los Heusos. Image: The Natural Historian

Was their language similar to ours?

“They definitely could have said ‘hello’ or ‘ok’ if those utterances had any meaning for them”

Dr. Rolf Qualm, Binghampton University, New York.

Well, there is really no way to tell. It is unlikely however that they had complex language like us, as their brain development was not as evolved as ours is today. But that doesn’t mean you can count them out of civilization. Recent research has shown that Neanderthals wore jewellery, used tools, and even produced art!

With Excerpts From: Newscientist, The New York Times, CNN