Did Neanderthals Talk Like Humans?

Illustration for article titled Did Neanderthals Talk Like Humans?

It's easy to think that Neanderthals were dumb brutes, incapable of complex speech like us. But it turns out that a Neanderthal's hyoid — a small bone in the neck that supports the tongue and is crucial for speech — worked in a very similar way to your own hyoid. Does this mean they could talk like (and with!) humans?

Advertisement

For a long time, scientists believed that modern humans were the only primates that had the capacity for complex speech. Reason being: Our unique horseshoe-shaped hyoid bone, which is the anatomical foundation of speech and something no other animal has. Indeed, other non-human primates have their own version of the hyoid, but only our bone is in the right position to work with the larynx and tongue that allows for true language.

Advertisement

But this human-centric belief all changed almost 25 years ago. In 1989, scientists discovered a Neanderthal hyoid bone that looked remarkably like our own. What's more, complex speech is often thought to be necessary for the development of culture, because it allows individuals to share ideas — 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, around the time that complex language was thought to have evolved in humans, Neanderthals were burying their dead, which is suggestive of religion or thoughts about the afterlife.

The evidence suggested that Neanderthals could talk, but nobody really knew if their hyoids actually worked like our own. So scientists decided to find out. BBC explains:

An international team of researchers analysed a fossil Neanderthal throat bone using 3D x-ray imaging and mechanical modelling.

This model allowed the group to see how the hyoid behaved in relation to the other surrounding bones.

Stephen Wroe, from the University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia, said: "We would argue that this is a very significant step forward. It shows that the Kebara 2 hyoid doesn't just look like those of modern humans - it was used in a very similar way."

Advertisement

Of course, showing that Neanderthal's hyoid worked like ours does isn't definitive proof that they could speak like humans, but it is highly suggestive of it, the researchers note.

However, other scientists certainly think complex language in Neanderthals isn't so far fetched. In a review article published earlier this year, two researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands argued that modern language and speech actually go back to the most recent ancestor we shared with Neanderthals and Denisovians (another humanoid species that co-existed with Neanderthals and early humans). This would mean that complex language didn't develop 100,000 years ago, but half a million years ago.

Advertisement

Check out the new study in the journal PLOS ONE, or read more at the BBC.

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Advertisement

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

privateidaho
PrivateIdaho

More and more it looks like current humanity is a mutt species.I don't mean that in a negative way,it just looks like today's human is a mix of several subspecies.Apparently these subspecies could interbreed.

If I was looking to hook up with a neanderthal I think I'd be turned off if all she could do was grunt or sound like an animal.Well I mean before sex not during it.

But the point I'm making is if we are a mix of human species,it seems more likely that the various subspecies shared much the same capabilities.I don't see it being appealing to any humanoid to want to mate with a more animalistic species.It would be like humans might see apes today,not interested.

I'm betting the species of humans that did interbreed were all living similar lives with similar abilities.