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SYFY WIRE evolution

Neanderthals could talk, and it probably wasn’t the “ooga booga” you expected

By Elizabeth Rayne
Neanderthal skull

Now that we don’t live in caves and beat things with clubs anymore, Homo sapiens tend to have a preconceived notion of our Neanderthal ancestors as being so primitive that the only way they could communicate was beating their chests and grunting.

That couldn’t be further from the truth, say scientists who recently found out some surprising things about how Neanderthals talked to each other. They probably had some sort of a language. Though it might have not been as sophisticated as how we speak now, which is probably why those “so easy a caveman can do it” car insurance commercials exist, the ear structures in Neanderthal skulls revealed that they were capable of picking up on the wavelengths associated with human language.

 “The study of audition in fossil hominids is of great interest given its relationship with intraspecific vocal communication…[but] less is known about the hearing abilities of the Neanderthals,” said a multidisciplinary team of researchers who were able to prove that what may seem like as a brute prototype of a human being was smarter than most of us might have thought. Their study was recently published in Nature Ecology & Evolution

Neanderthals or Homo neanderthalensis are our closest predecessors. They are thought to have died out because they could not adapt to chasing smaller, swifter prey with their spears and growing vegetables after the megafauna (such as mammoths and woolly rhinos) they hunted died out. Some argue that because Neanderthals interbred with modern humans, they are not technically extinct because their bloodline never really died out. Many of us have a small percentage of Neanderthal blood running through our veins and don’t even know it.

neanderthal and modern human skulls

Whether any other human species was capable of spoken language has been a question that could only be answered by the silent bones of those that came before us. Hi-res CT scans were used to examine the skulls of Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and another ancient hominid species. Using the CT scans to reconstruct virtual 3D models of the ear structures once attached to those skulls was what ultimately showed who could and couldn’t communicate with what we recognize as language. Both the outer and inner ear help us understand each other.

When someone says something, the external part of your ear sends the vibrations into the ear canal until they hit the eardrum. Those same vibrations make the eardrum vibrate and cause the auditory ossicles, three tiny bone structures in the middle ear, to also vibrate. Vibrations then stream through the fluid of the spiral inner ear cavity known as the cochlea and into the adjacent basilar membrane. Next to that membrane are receptor cells with tiny hairlike cilia that also vibrate and trigger neurons when they move. These neurons are connected to the auditory nerve, which zaps information to your brain.

After virtual models of human and hominid ears were created, the research team analyzed them and entered their findings into a computer model that would give them an idea of each individual’s hearing ability within the frequency range of most sounds that occur in human speech. They also figured out the occupied bandwidth—the frequency range where there is the most hearing sensitivity. The greater the bandwidth, the greater the capacity to understand oral communication. Fossils of earlier hominids that Neanderthal ancestors had the worst hearing.

Neanderthals were found to have had hearing abilities that are eerily close to ours. They probably used more consonants than vowels, since consonants maximize the amount of information communicated in the shortest amount of time. So much for “ooga booga”.

“The occupied bandwidth of Neanderthals was greater than the Sima de los Huesos hominins and similar to extant humans, implying that Neanderthals evolved the auditory capacities to support a vocal communication system as efficient as modern human speech,” the scientists said.

If anyone ever calls you a Neanderthal, tell them that.

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