December 21, 2013
Researchers Find Additional Evidence Suggesting That Neanderthals Could Speak
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online
New analysis of a Neanderthal’s hyoid bone provides evidence suggesting the extinct humanoids had the ability to speak, an international team of researchers write in the latest edition of the journal PLoS ONE.
Previously, a 1989 description of this horseshoe shaped structure in the neck originating from a fossil found in Kebara Cave in Israel “fueled scientific debate on the evolution of speech and complex language,” the researchers wrote. The hyoid bone is essential for human speech, as it supports the root of the tongue, but in non-human primates it is not placed in the right position for vocalization, the study authors explained.
According to BBC News science reporter Melissa Hogenboom, the researchers used 3D x-ray imaging and mechanical modeling to study the Neanderthal throat bone. This model allowed them to look at how the hyoid behaved relative to the other bones surrounding it, allowing them to determine that it not only looked similar to that found in modern humans but also was used in a similar way.
“The mechanical performance of whole bones is partly controlled by internal trabecular geometries, regulated by bone-remodeling in response to the forces applied,” the researchers wrote, adding, “the Neanderthal and modern human hyoids also present very similar internal architectures and micro-biomechanical behaviors.
“Our study incorporates detailed analysis of histology, meticulous reconstruction of musculature, and computational biomechanical analysis with models incorporating internal micro-geometry,” they added in their study. “Because internal architecture reflects the loadings to which a bone is routinely subjected, our findings are consistent with a capacity for speech in the Neanderthals.”
Hogenboom said experts have long believed complex language only evolved approximately 100,000 years ago, and modern humans were the first species to be capable of complex speech. Since the 1989 discovery, older hyoid fossils have been discovered in Spain – fossils believed to be 500,000 years old and attributed to Homo heidelbergensis, a forerunner of both the modern human and the Neanderthal.
Stephen Wroe of the University of New England’s School of Environmental and Rural Sciences in New South Wales, Australia told BBC News the work would not necessarily be accepted as proof Neanderthals could speak, but said their findings were “a very significant step forward” towards making that claim.
“We were very careful not to suggest that we had proven anything beyond doubt – but I do think it will help to convince a good number of specialists and tip the weight of opinion,” Wroe added. “Many would argue that our capacity for speech and language is among the most fundamental of characteristics that makes us human. If Neanderthals also had language then they were truly human too.”
Likewise, Dr. Dan Dediu from the Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics told Hogenboom, “The authors themselves are understandably cautious in drawing strong conclusions but I think that their work clearly supports the contention that speech and language is an old feature of our lineage going back at least to the last common ancestor that we shared with the Neanderthals.”