Neanderthals could hear and communicate in much the same way as modern humans: Scientists

The findings indicate that Neanderthals' anatomy allowed them to produce and perceive frequencies similar to the sound of human speech

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For many decades, scientists have tried to answer whether other ancestors of modern humans possessed a similar form of communication, such as spoken language. 

They especially focused on Neanderthals, the closest ancestors of Homo sapiens that lived in Eurasia about 40,000 years ago. As a new study shows, these primates had almost the same hearing and communication abilities as modern humans. 

Research published in Nature, Ecology & Evolution journal suggests that Neanderthals possessed the anatomy that allowed them to produce and perceive oral communication, which is as complex and efficient as human speech. 

“This is one of the most important studies I have been involved in during my career,” ScienceDaily quoted Rolf Quam, one of the researchers who worked on the study. 

“The results are solid and clearly show the Neanderthals had the capacity to perceive and produce human speech.”

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She added that this is one of the very few ongoing researches that rely on “fossil evidence” to understand the evolution of language, which is a “notoriously tricky subject in anthropology.”

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The group of scientists createdvirtual 3D models of the ear structures of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, relying on high-resolution CT scans of five Neanderthal skulls, as well as an ancient skull fossil of the Sima hominin, the ancestor of Neanderthals. The fossil was found in the territory of Atapuerca, an archaeological site with limestone caves near Burgos in northern Spain. 

After researchers collected the data on these models, they entered it into a software-based model, which was developed in the field of auditory bioengineering. They analyzed the hearing abilities of the species up to five kHz, which covers most of the frequencies of modern humans’ speech sounds, according to ScienceDaily

3D model shows a virtual structure of the ear in a modern human and the Neanderthal.
3D model shows a virtual structure of the ear in a modern human and the Neanderthal. Mercedes Conde-Valverde

Based on the findings, the Neanderthals had slightly improved hearing compared with that of the Sima hominin, recording hearing abilities ranging between four and five kHz, which resembles modern humans. The study showed that Neanderthals’ ears were also adapted to these frequencies. 

Additionally, the researchers estimated the frequency range of maximum sensitivity in different species,called occupied bandwidth. Wide bandwidth allows species to use various acoustic signals in oral communication, which, in turn, improves the efficiency of the communication.

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For modern humans, the occupied bandwidth is the human vocal range, according to ScienceAlert.

As the study states, the Neanderthal showed an occupied bandwidth closer to modern humans compared with their Atapuerca ancestors.

“This really is the key,” ScienceDaily cited Mercedes Conde-Valverde, the lead author of the study.

“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.”

The research team has been working on this study for almost two decades to expand their knowledge of fossil species.

Their study also theorized that Neanderthal speech likely consisted of consonants, which contradicts previous studies that argued the Neanderthals had the capacity to produce the vowels, according to Quam.

“Most previous studies of Neanderthal speech capacities focused on their ability to produce the main vowels in English spoken language. 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,” he said.

“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 change in the hearing abilities among Neanderthals goes in line with archaeological evidence proving complicated mannerisms, including the use of stone tools, fire and possible symbolic practices.

“These results are particularly gratifying,” said Ignacio Martinez, another researcher who worked on the study.

“We believe, after more than a century of research into this question, that we have provided a conclusive answer to the question of Neanderthal speech capacities.”

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