Origins of Language: Neanderthals May Have Been Able to Talk

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New micro x-ray imaging study suggests Neanderthals had vocal apparatus for speech.

Although we like to think of human language as being unique, new research suggests that Neanderthals may have spoken a language not too dissimilar to those used today.

Scientists have long thought that Neanderthals — who shared the Earth with our human ancestors for thousands of years — had neither the physiological equipment nor the cognitive capacity for language.

However, a new insight has come from micro x-ray imaging of a Neanderthal’s hyoid bone, a bone that is central to tongue movement and swallowing.

The 60,000 year old Neanderthal remains were originally found in Israel in 1983.

While the shape of the hyoid bone was virtually identical to our own, with the technology available then it wasn’t possible to show this meant they may have been able to talk.

Now, though, a new analysis published in PLoS ONE, suggests language may be much older than was previously thought (D’Anastasio et al., 2013).

One of the study’s authors, Stephen Wroe, explains:

“By analysing the mechanical behaviour of the fossilised bone with micro x-ray imaging, we were able to build models of the hyoid that included the intricate internal structure of the bone.

We then compared them to models of modern humans.

Our comparisons 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 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.”

Evidence of similarities in the hyoid bone don’t prove that Neanderthals could talk, of course. For that, more concrete evidence would be required.

Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing finding that Neanderthals had some of the basic vocal hardware required.

Whether or not they had the requisite cognitive capacity is another question altogether — one that the passage of time has made very difficult to answer.

Image credit: Erich Ferdinand



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Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 3 March 2014

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