Neanderthals Could Speak and Process Spoken Communication


Neanderthals. Image credit: University of Utah via kued.org

Neanderthals had the capacity to perceive and produce human speech.


By Bill Hounslow
Author
Rosa Rubicondior


When the ancestors of anatomically-modern non-Africans came out of Africa and met their Neanderthal sister species, they would probably have been able to communicate with them with speech. The fact that two related species of hominin could very probably use speech in exactly the same way, is strongly suggestive that our common ancestor could too, even if not to such a developed standard.

3D model and virtual reconstruction of the ear in a modern human (left) and the Amud 1 Neandertal (right) / Image: Mercedes Conde-Valverde

This is the conclusion of an international team of researchers including Binghamton University anthropology professor Rolf Quam and graduate student Alex Velez, and scientists from several Spanish universities and research institutions. The team was led by Professor Mercedes Conde-Valverde of Universidad de Alcalá, Spain.

This is the conclusion of an international team of researchers including Binghamton University anthropology professor Rolf Quam and graduate student Alex Velez, and scientists from several Spanish universities and research institutions. The team was led by Professor Mercedes Conde-Valverde of Universidad de Alcalá, Spain.

Reconstructed hearing patterns in modern humans, Neandertals and the Sima de los Huesos based on their ear anatomy. Compared with their ancestors from the Sima de los Huesos, the Neandertals more closely resemble modern humans in showing a heightened sensitivity between 3.5-5 kHz, a frequency range that contains acoustic information related to consonant production in human spoken language. / Credit: Mercedes Conde-Valverde

They arrived at this conclusion after examining virtual 3D models of the ears of Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and the ancestors of Neanderthals found at Atapuera, Spain, produced from high-resolution CT scans.

According to the Binghampton University news release:

Data collected from these 3D models was then entered into a software-based model, developed in the field of auditory bioengineering, to estimate the hearing abilities up to 5 kHz, which encompasses most of the frequency range of modern human speech sounds. Compared with the Atapuerca fossils, the Neanderthals showed slightly better hearing between 4-5 kHz, resembling modern humans more closely.

In addition, the researchers were able to calculate the frequency range of maximum sensitivity, technically known as the occupied bandwidth, in each species. The occupied bandwidth is related to the communication system, such that a wider bandwidth allows for a larger number of easily distinguishable acoustic signals to be used in the oral communication of a species. This, in turn, improves the efficiency of communication, the ability to deliver a clear message in the shortest amount of time. The Neanderthals show a wider bandwidth compared with their ancestors from Atapuerca, more closely resembling modern humans in this feature.

[…]

Thus, Neanderthals had a similar capacity to us to produce the sounds of human speech, and their ear was “tuned” to perceive these frequencies. This change in the auditory capacities in Neanderthals, compared with their ancestors from Atapuerca, parallels archaeological evidence for increasingly complex behavioral patterns, including changes in stone tool technology, domestication of fire and possible symbolic practices. Along these lines, the study provides strong evidence in favor of the coevolution of increasingly complex behaviors and increasing efficiency in vocal communication throughout the course of human evolution.

The team’s research results are published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution, sadly behind a paywall. In their abstract the authors state:

The occupied bandwidth is directly related to the efficiency of the vocal communication system of a species. Our results show that the occupied bandwidth of Neanderthals was greater than the Sima de los Huesos hominins and similar to extant humans, implying that Neanderthals evolved the auditory capacities to support a vocal communication system as efficient as modern human speech.

The significance of this research is that it shows how the auditory perception of spoken language was an evolved feature in our ancestors. The fact that the ancestors of Neanderthals found in the Sima de los Huesos at Atapuerca, Spain had slightly less auditory acuity than their descendants indicates that this ability was evolving over time. For that, there needed to be environmental pressure in the form of an advantage in perceiving more complex sounds in a developing language.

For decades, one of the central questions in human evolutionary studies has been whether the human form of communication, spoken language, was also present in any other species of human ancestor, especially the Neanderthals.Professor Juan Luis Arsuaga, co-author Professor of

Paleontology
Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain
Co-director of excavations and research at Atapuerca, Spain.

The other significance is that it shows how the ability of modern human’s to speak and communicate compex ideas vocally is not the unique attribute that people used to believe and that Creationists still claim it to be, indicating some special position of modern humans in an assumed hierarchy, but is just another evolved feature, developed in response to environmental pressures working to enhance and improve something that was present in our ancestors and which was present in other species of hominin.

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.

Professor Mercedes Conde-Valverde, lead author
Universidad de Alcalá, Spain

This is one of the most important studies I have been involved in during my career. 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…

One of the other interesting results from the study was the suggestion that Neanderthal speech likely included an increased use of consonants. 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. 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.

Professor Rolf Quam, co-author
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Binghamton University, New York, USA

These results are particularly gratifying. 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.

Professor Ignacio Martinez, co-author
Universidad de Alcalá, Madrid, Spain

Human cultural and linguistic skills were clearly co-evolving; as cultures evolved so the need to communicate complex ideas evolved. This in turn allowed cultures to advance a little further. Homo sapiens were not unique in that respect and merely continued a trend that had begun at least in our immediate parent species, if not earlier.


Originally published by Rosa Rubicondior, 03.01.2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.

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