Our Neanderthal cousins had the capacity to both hear and produce the speech sounds of modern humans, a new study has found.
Based on a detailed analysis and digital reconstruction of the structure of the bones in their skulls, the study settles one aspect of a decades-long debate over the linguistic capabilities of Neanderthals.
“This is one of the most important studies I have been involved in during my career,” said palaeoanthropologist Rolf Quam of Binghamton University.
“The results are solid and clearly show the Neanderthals had the capacity to perceive and produce human speech. 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.”
The notion that Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalis) were much more primitive than modern humans (Homo sapiens) is outdated, and in recent years a growing body of evidence demonstrates that they were much more intelligent than we once assumed. They developed technology, crafted tools, created art and held funerals for their dead.
Whether they actually spoke with each other, however, has remained a mystery. Their complex behaviors seem to suggest that they would have had to be able to communicate, but some scientists have contended that only modern humans have ever had the mental capacity for complex linguistic processes.
Whether that’s the case is going to be very difficult to prove one way or another, but the first step would be to determine if Neanderthals could produce and perceive sounds in the optimal range for speech-based communication.
Read more: Science Alert