Neanderthals: Expert discusses why species went extinct

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Neanderthals are the closest ancestors to modern humans before they died out around 40,000 years ago. While many perceive them to be primitive cave men who could only grunt, that could be about to change thanks to a landmark study. Researchers used high resolution CT scans to determine that Neanderthals could produce and perceive speech.

Anthropology professor Rolf Quam of the Binghamton University, New York, said: “This is one of the most important studies I have been involved in during my career.

“The results are solid and clearly show the Neanderthals had the capacity to perceive and produce human speech.

“This is one of the very few current, ongoing research lines relying on fossil evidence to study the evolution of language, a notoriously tricky subject in anthropology.”

Experts have been desperate to learn whether the evolution of language was unique to humans.

Now, they may finally have the answer thanks to a complex and highly detailed study.

The researchers used CT scans to create virtual 3D models of the ears of Homo sapiens – us – and Neanderthals.

They found that in both species, there was a hearing ability of up to 5hKz.

This is the frequency range in which humans speech sounds are produced, proving both humans and Neanderthals had evolved to be able to differentiate speech patterns.

In addition, the team were able to “calculate the frequency range of maximum sensitivity, technically known as the occupied bandwidth” in both species.

The occupied bandwidth is related to the communication systems of humans, which allows us to hear “distinguishable acoustic signals”, particularly during oral communication.

This creates a stronger ability to be able to both produce and hear oral messages.

Mercedes Conde-Valverde, professor at the Universidad de Alcalá in Spain and lead author of the study, said: “This really is the key.

“The presence of similar hearing abilities, particularly the bandwidth, demonstrates that the Neanderthals possessed a communication system that was as complex and efficient as modern human speech.”

Prof Quam continued: “One of the other interesting results from the study was the suggestion that Neanderthal speech likely included an increased use of consonants.

“Most previous studies of Neanderthal speech capacities focused on their ability to produce the main vowels in English spoken language.

“However, we feel this emphasis is misplaced, since the use of consonants is a way to include more information in the vocal signal and it also separates human speech and language from the communication patterns in nearly all other primates.

“The fact that our study picked up on this is a really interesting aspect of the research and is a novel suggestion regarding the linguistic capacities in our fossil ancestors.”

This means Neanderthals had a similar capacity to produce the sounds of human speech, and their ears were tuned to hear it, according to the research published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Ignacio Martinez from Universidad de Alcalá in Spain said: “These results are particularly gratifying.

“We believe, after more than a century of research into this question, that we have provided a conclusive answer to the question of Neanderthal speech capacities.”

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