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Evolution: Neanderthals may have heard just like us

Nature Ecology & Evolution

March 2, 2021

Neanderthals had similar hearing and speech capacity to modern humans, according to computerized tomography (CT) scans and auditory bioengineering models of the Neanderthal outer and middle ear reported in a paper published this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

In the absence of written records or sound recordings, the language capacity of extinct hominins has remained largely unknown. However, reconstructing and testing models of their ears has provided a means of insight. Recent research has shown that early hominins had less-sophisticated speech and hearing capacity than modern humans.

Mercedes Conde-Valverde and colleagues tested the sound transmission power of the Neanderthal ear using virtual reconstructions based on previously published fossil specimens, and reconstructed the range of sounds that Neanderthals could hear and probably produce. They find that unlike older hominins (including their immediate ancestors), Neanderthals could hear the same range of sounds as modern humans, and their hearing was optimized towards consonant production. This means that Neanderthals had the necessary auditory capabilities to support a vocal communication system as complex and efficient as human speech.

The authors caution that the presence of the anatomical 'hardware' necessary to produce human-like speech in Neanderthals does not necessarily imply the presence of the same mental 'software' as modern humans. However, these findings combined with recent archaeological discoveries about symbolic behaviour in Neanderthals are supportive of the theory that they possessed a type of human language distinct from non-human communication systems.

doi: 10.1038/s41559-021-01391-6

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