Could Neanderthals speak

The language of the Neanderthals

Whether or not Neanderthals could speak has been studied for more than five decades - and is still being researched because apparently no one could give a definitive answer to the question. It is clear that our human relatives were capable of enormously complex cultural achievements, of which one can hardly imagine how they could have been possible without very efficient communication with one another. Neanderthals were also not genetically disadvantaged compared to modern humans when it comes to the known prerequisites for speech in the genome. Some older studies, on the other hand, had questioned whether the anatomy of the Neanderthals was at all suitable for producing speech sounds - for example because the larynx was higher than in modern humans. At least it was considered likely that the elderly species could produce a wide variety of sounds - but whether they could pass through as a powerful language remained controversial.

A team led by Mercedes Conde-Valverde from the Universidad de Alcalá in Madrid has now approached the problem from a different angle: The researchers tried to find out whether the Neanderthals could hear complex language content particularly well - if so, then it stands to reason that he could also used and used this property. The group around Conde-Valverde therefore looked at the acoustics inside a typical Neanderthal inner ear. She presents the results and conclusions in the journal "Nature Ecology and Evolution".

This article is featured in Spectrum - The Week, 09/2021

An exact 3-D analysis of the inner ear allows us to deduce how the transmission of sound power in this ear works. The transmission performance (sound power transmission, SPT) depends significantly on the dimensions of the individual sound spaces in the ear, which break, dampen and filter the sound - and it provides information about how well individual sound frequencies progress when the sound penetrates from the outside through the middle ear and overlap until they arrive at the entrance of the cochlea. You can now also deduce from this the frequency bandwidth to which an ear is aligned, i.e. at which pitches it worked particularly well. It is to be assumed that in this frequency band important things happen for the living being: the anatomically modern homo sapiens for example, it listens most precisely in those frequencies to which the ear is anatomically tuned and in which human language encodes its information. The wider the optimized frequency band, the more audible differences can be hidden in it - and the more meaningful content is then also allowed in an acoustic code.

In the chimpanzee, but also in various very old relatives like that Australopithecus africanus and the Paranthropus robustus the inner ears are not designed in order to be able to resolve the frequency band of speech particularly well. In fact, the ears of the Homo heidelbergensis From the Middle Paleolithic Age, similarly untalented for language listening. And the Neanderthal ears?

Mercedes Conde-Valverde and her team have now made new 3-D scans of the inner ear of five Neanderthals and compared the sound transmission in these ears with that in the ears of modern humans and of older hominids and chimpanzees. The result was clear: the frequency bandwidth of humans and Neanderthals does not differ significantly, that of the other species is recognizable.

Neanderthals could therefore hear language just as well as we humans - with an acoustic sensorium that is optimally tuned to the frequencies that are particularly relevant. Unlike, for example, the ears of Homo heidelbergensis From the Sima de los Huesos cave, Neanderthals also have frequencies of four to five kilohertz in the optimized frequency band of the inner ear. The frequency band of the Neanderthals is also as wide as that of humans.