A new study has suggested that Neanderthals were able to hear sounds and even produce speech like today’s humans. Experts came to this conclusion by creating a digital reconstruction of the skull bones and focused on their ear cavities.
It was long thought that Neanderthals weren’t very smart, but recent studies have confirmed that they were in fact quite intelligent by creating tools, jewelry, art, and even performed funerals for their loved ones. However, whether or not they could hear and speak remained a hot topic of debate.
A team of experts led by paleoanthropologist Mercedes Conde-Valverde of the University of Alcalá in Spain took high-resolution CT scans of five Neanderthal skulls in order to make virtual 3D models of the structure of their ears. Then they recreated the ear structures of Homo sapiens as well as an ancestor of Neanderthals called the Sima de los Huesos hominins that lived approximately 430,000 years ago.
They conducted experiments to study the frequency range that made their ears more sensitive and they discovered that Neanderthals’ hearing was better than the Sima hominin and that the occupied bandwidth was closer to modern humans. That indicates that Neanderthals should have been able to hear each other’s voices.
“The presence of similar hearing abilities, particularly the bandwidth, demonstrates that the Neanderthals possessed a communication system that was as complex and efficient as modern human speech,” noted Conde-Valverde. She went on to say, “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.”
Rolf Quam, who is a paleoanthropologist from Binghamton University, weighed in by stating, “Most previous studies of Neanderthal speech capacities focused on their ability to produce the main vowels in English spoken language,” adding, “However, we feel this emphasis is misplaced, since the use of consonants is a way to include more information in the vocal signal and it also separates human speech and language from the communication patterns in nearly all other primates. The fact that our study picked up on this is a really interesting aspect of the research and is a novel suggestion regarding the linguistic capacities in our fossil ancestors.”
Quam added, “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.”
On the other hand, if Neanderthals did in fact have the capability to speak, that doesn’t mean that they did.
The study was published in Nature Ecology & Evolution where it can be read in full.