Neanderthal Language

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

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

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.

By April Holloway


As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I guess I am now a member of the world's oldest profession.

i think prostitution is still older

Where are your references? Without citing your sources, it is difficult to accept that this rehashing of old research can be said to represent anything new.
Have you read Mithen's "The Singing Neanderthals"?
You might enjoy that. Then again, it being based in a world of peer-reviewed research, you might not.

aprilholloway's picture

Andy, your reply is unnecessarily antagonistic, don't you think? 

Our source is always included as a hyperlink in the article. It is there. 

The study was completed two months ago - I don't consider that to be old. 

The study was peer-reviewed:

Why almost every article I read about Neanderthals starts with something like "Neanderthals were once considered to be subhuman brutes with low intelligence and capable of communicating through little more than a series of grunts." I never read anything that considered them that way. Also there should be no suspicion about who is the main culprit in the Neanderthal demise. It is us, Homo Sapiens. Neanderthal sand the mega fauna ecosystem that they lived in suffered and survived worst climate conditions before the arrival of Modern humans to Euroasia than that of the time of their demise and survived it. The only questiin that can be asked on this matter is how modern humans caused the extinction of the Neanderthal and the mega fauna ecosystem they lived in.

aprilholloway's picture

Hi Arttai, I was taught that perspective at both school and university. That was many year's ago now but I still see that view, particularly in media reports which often use terms like 'cavemen' and 'primative'. To a lesser extent, the view is still pursued by a minority of scientists. 

Hello Arttai.

I  am probably older than you (61), and I have followed the Neanderthal debate for many years. Even from the first one around 150 years ago the first specimen (PERSON) found was regarded as inferior.Yet he was old,  unable to cater for himself, but had been taken care of by others. The change in attitude has happened recently, just  look at older books and restorations.Not many years ago we learned that he invented a form of superglue!

I totally agree with your respect for his achievements, surviving in Europe during the ice ages, in my eyes a better selection test than Africa, but naturally, in  a poorer environment, in fewer numbers, and because of climate, probably vulnerable, like eskimos,  to  diseases, carried by people from Africa, perhaps  in greater numbers.

BUT: Who is extinct? In my eyes he is here, the basic genes for running our body  we have in common, and the distinctive genes from him are around 2 % of the average european, not the same 2 %, but in all around 20 %  of his genes are represented, according to present day count.

So I find this very good, for a never very numerous group of genes.

I am glad you like him.

Regards Erik Ringdal

I know the clan of the cave bear books are ficticious but the neanderthal wiseman in those books realises that by interbreeding his race does live on, such a great series!

I have several friends like me who felt a great enjoyment in The series of books. We all felt ourselves living through those times with the characters as the research was so well done. We all saw parts ourselves in the character of Ayla. I never saw them as ignorant or primitive, simply a different level.

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