Neanderthal study reveals origin of language is far older than once thought
Neanderthals were once considered to be subhuman brutes with low intelligence and capable of communicating through little more than a series of grunts. However, research fuelled by a fascination into the plight of the Neanderthals who mysteriously died out some 30,000 years ago, has revealed that Neanderthals were not as primitive as once believed. New research has now revealed that Neanderthals most likely had a sophisticated form of speech and language not dissimilar to what we have today.
It was long believed that our ancient human ancestors, including the Neanderthals, lacked the necessary cognitive capacity and vocal hardware for speech and language. However, an international team of scientists led by Associate Professor Stephen Wroe, a zoologist and palaeontologist from the University of New England, has made a revolutionary discovery which challenges the notion that Homo sapiens are unique in their capacity for speech and language.
The research team utilised latest 3D x-ray imagining technology to examine a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal hyoid bone discovered in the Kebara Cave in Israel in 1989. The hyoid bone, otherwise called the lingual bone, is a small, u-shaped bone situated centrally in the upper part of the neck, beneath the mandible but above the larynx. The function of the hyoid is to provide an anchor point for the muscles of the tongue and for those in the upper part of the front of the neck.
The Neanderthal remains found in the Kebara Cave, Israel. Photo source
The hyoid bone, which is the only bone in the body not connected to any other, is the foundation of speech and is found only in humans and Neanderthals. Other animals have versions of the hyoid, but only the human variety is in the right position to work in unison with the larynx and tongue and make us the chatterboxes of the animal world. Without it, scientists say we'd still be making noises much like chimpanzees.
Location of the Hyoid bone
The discovery of the modern-looking hyoid bone of a Neanderthal man in the Kebara Cave led its discoverers to argue many years ago that the Neanderthals had a descended larynx, and thus human-like speech capabilities.
“To many, the Neanderthal hyoid discovered was surprising because its shape was very different to that of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. However, it was virtually indistinguishable from that of our own species. This led to some people arguing that this Neanderthal could speak,” said Professor Wroe.
However, other researchers have claimed that the morphology of the hyoid was not indicative of the larynx's position and that it was necessary to take into consideration the skull base, the mandible and the cervical vertebrae and a cranial reference plane. It was also argued that the fact that the Neanderthal hyoid was the same shape as humans did not necessarily mean they were used in the same way.
However, through advances in 3D imaging and computer modelling, Professor Wroe’s team was able to examine this issue. By analysing the mechanical behaviour of the fossilised bone with micro x-ray imaging, they were able to build models of the hyoid that included the intricate internal structure of the bone. They then compared them to models of modern humans.
The results showed that in terms of mechanical behaviour, the Neanderthal hyoid was basically indistinguishable from our own, strongly suggesting that this key part of the vocal tract was used in exactly the same way.
“From this research, we can conclude that it’s likely that the origins of speech and language are far, far older than once thought,” said Professor Wroe. The first proto-Neanderthal traits appeared as early as 350,000 – 600,000 years ago, which means that, potentially, language has been around for this period of time or even earlier.
Featured image: Depiction of the Hyoid bone in a Neanderthal. Image source.