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Fossil Find Suggests Neanderthals Could Make Human Speech Sounds

April 26, 1989

NEW YORK (AP) _ Scientists have found a 60,000-year-old neck bone that suggests Neanderthals were anatomically able to produce the speech sounds modern humans make, a new study says.

The bone strongly resembles its counterpart in modern humans, said researchers from Israel, France and Moorhead State University in Minnesota.

That implies that voice-production machinery has changed little over the past 60,000 years, researchers said. But other scientists said the find was unlikely to settle the debate about speech capabilities of Neanderthals.

The fossil study and a second paper about ancient man appear in Thursday’s issue of the British journal Nature.

The Neanderthals, who lived in Europe and Asia until about 35,000 years ago, undoubtedly did communicate in some fashion because their culture was relatively advanced, researchers say.

The debate is whether they were able to articulate the range of modern human speech sounds. That is part of a larger debate on whether Neanderthals were direct ancestors of modern humans, rather than an evolutionary dead-end, said Philip Lieberman, professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

The new fossil, unearthed from Kebara Cave at Mount Carmel in Israel, is a hyoid bone. The tiny, U-shaped hyoid is situated between the root of the tongue and the larynx.

In the Nature paper, the researchers said the fossil bone is almost identical in size and shape to modern hyoids. Along with other evidence, that suggests that that the larynx, or voice box, also may have not changed over 60,000 years, they said.

If so, the anatomical equipment for human-like speech may have been in place that long ago, they wrote.

But Jeffrey Laitman, who has studied the speech capabilities of humankind’s ancestors, said he believes the new finding does not shed light on Neanderthals.

He said he does not see how the isolated bone will help scientists determine the position of the larynx in the throat, which he said is crucial to the question of Neanderthal’s speech capabilities.

The larynx is lower in the throat of modern humans than it was in very early ancestors, said Laitman, of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. The lower position allows for the space above it to act as a resonating chamber, which is required for fully articulate speech, he said.

In an editorial accompanying the Nature paper, John Marshall of the Radcliffe Infirmary at Oxford, England, cautioned that determining function from anatomy is tricky.

The argument about Neanderthal language capability, he wrote, ″will undoubtedly run and run until we discover a deep-frozen Neanderthal who is susceptible to resuscitation.″

A second report in Nature confirms an earlier study that suggested anatomically modern humans lived in the Middle East some 90,000 years ago. That is more than twice the age that scientists had been able to establish reliably for the existence of anatomically modern humans.

Scientists from Britain, Canada and Israel studied the age of cattle teeth found with human remains in the Skhul cave at Mount Carmel. They found that the teeth, and thus the humans, are at least about 81,000 years old and probably about 101,000 years old.

That is comparable to the age of about 92,000 years reported last year for similar humans in the Qafzeh cave in Israel.

Anatomically modern humans may have occupied the area only intermittently during that era, study co-author Christopher Stringer said in an interview.

Neanderthals were probably more established there, but it is not clear whether they encountered the anatomically modern humans, said Stringer, curator of fossil hominids at the British Museum (Natural History) in London.

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