Neanderthals’ ears were cut out for human chatter (and possibly chatters themselves)

New research suggests that they could not only pick up human speech, but also produce something similar.

“For decades, one of the central questions in research into human evolution has been whether the human form of communication – spoken language – was also used by other types of hominins, especially Neanderthals,” explains researcher Juan Luis Arsuaga. And the new research appeared in the magazine Nature Ecology & Evolution now seems to be able to answer that question in part. In the study, scientists show that anatomically, the Neanderthals did not stand in the way of perceiving human speech. In fact, their hearing was cut out for it, and that strongly suggests that they were also able to produce something similar to human speech themselves. A breakthrough, according to researcher Rolf Quam. “This is one of the most important studies I have been involved in during my career. The results are robust and clearly show that Neanderthals were able to perceive and produce human speech. ”

The research
The researchers draw those conclusions after examining the hearing of modern humans, Neanderthals and the ancestors of Neanderthals. They mapped the structure of the ears using CT scans. Subsequently, 3D models of the ears were made on the basis of this. Using these 3D models, the researchers investigated what the ears of modern humans, Neanderthals and their ancestors could perceive. And from that they deduce what the hominids could produce in sounds.

The research shows that Neanderthals were better able than their ancestors to perceive sounds with a frequency between 4 and 5 kHz. This makes their hearing very similar to that of modern people (see also the graph below). That Neanderthals’ ears are much more sensitive to a wide range of frequencies than those of their ancestors is an important conclusion, the researchers say. Because a larger ‘hearing range’ also means that you can use a wider range of clearly distinguishable acoustic signals in verbal communication. “The fact that there are comparable hearing capacities – and in particular, comparable hearing range – indicates that the Neanderthals had a communication system that was as complex and efficient as the speech of modern humans,” said researcher Mercedes Conde-Valverde.

This graph shows the sensitivity of the ears of Neanderthals, modern humans and the Neanderthal ancestors found in Sima de los Huesos to different frequencies. It is striking that the hearing of Neanderthals (and modern humans) is very sensitive to frequencies between 3.5 and 5 kHz, the frequency that is often used for the production of consonants. Image: Mercedes Conde-Valverde.

Furthermore, the research indicates that Neanderthals’ ears were also able to hear consonants. “Previous studies of Neanderthals’ speech skills often focused on the ability to produce the most important vowels in the spoken English language. But we feel that this focus on vowels is misplaced, as using consonants is one way of conveying more information. Also, the use of consonants distinguishes human speech and language from the communication patterns we see in virtually all other primates. ”

In their study, the researchers conclude that Neanderthals’ ears were ‘optimized’ for picking up human speech sounds, including consonants. And from this they infer that the Neanderthals could probably also produce those sounds themselves. That the ancestors of Neanderthals were unable to do this, or less well, is in line with archaeological evidence that suggests that the behavior of Neanderthals became more complex over time. We also see this in recovered tools, for example. The study therefore suggests, in passing, that there is co-evolution, in which the evolution of more complex behavior goes hand in hand with the evolution of more efficient vocal communication.

No major differences
Whether the Neanderthals really had their own language, the researchers cannot prove. Their study only shows that anatomically, the Neanderthals had nothing to prevent them from maintaining a fairly complex and efficient communication system. And in view of what we have learned about the Neanderthals in recent years, it really does not seem inconceivable that they also used that. “Neanderthals were a species with brains the size of ours, they took care of their sick, buried their dead, made themselves beautiful and used fire,” said Conde-Valverde. The image of a stupid and somewhat clumsy caveman has long shaken off the humanoid. In many ways, the Neanderthal was hardly different from our ancestors. And even when it comes to communication, the differences – judging by the structure of their ears – may not have been that great.

The researchers hope to study the hearing of other hominids in the future as well. It should not only provide more insight into the vocal skills of extinct hominids, but also lead to a better picture of human evolution and our widely used speech skills to this day.

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