Chatty cousins or silent siblings? A new method to assess Neanderthal speech capacity from hyoid bones

For Palaeolithic archaeologists, assessing the language capacity of any extinct hominin lineage is hard, and really only possible through the analysis of directly preserved remains (hyoid bones) or indirectly through material-culture expressions. The discovery of numerous hyoid bones from various sites has continued to fuel the debate about the language capacities of many of our ancestors; this is particularly the case since these elements have been recovered from Neanderthals (El Sidron, Kebara), Homo heidelbergensis (Atapeurca) and also from Australopiths (Dikika). Certainly, more recent research seems to suggest that the morphology of the vocal apparatus that we recognise in modern humans had arisen by around c.530,000 years ago and remained largely unchanged since. This gross morphological analysis does not answer the question about sound production and language capacity and this micro-scale study is part of the recent work published in PLOS One.

The authors point out the variation in gross morphology between hominins and other primates but they utilise a new method that incorporate Finite Element Analysis (FEA), which is a powerful engineering tool originally developed as a non-destructive method of predicting mechanical behaviour in man-made products. The use of this method on the Kebara hyoid and comparisons with modern human hyoids shows a very similar micro-biomechanical performance. The minor differences observed are assigned by the authors as related to manifestations of individuality/size differences. Whilst the authors suggest little major differences between modern humans and Neanderthals in terms of bone composition this is clearly not the case for other extinct or closely related species during the Pleistocene. This aspect seems a little unclear and perhaps requires further investigation to support this comment and observation.

This new and novel approach has highlighted that whilst the Neanderthal from Kebara had a vocal tract that operated similar to that of a modern-human this does not automatically equate/mean these individuals fall within their range. However, the researchers do conclude that the micro-biomechanics are consistent with the ability for speech. The authors do state, categorically, that these findings need to be contextualised within a broader framework of studies into both extinct hominins and modern primates before more substantial and firmer conclusions are reached. What this study does is expand the Neanderthal repertoire, perhaps in terms of subsistence and symbolic behaviour, but still emphasises differences and their uniqueness from modern humans.

Exciting times for Palaeolithic research and we await further results with interest here at GPN.

Full reference:  D’Anastasio, R et al. 2013. Micro-Biomechanics of the Kebara 2 Hyoid and Its Implications for Speech in Neanderthals. PLoS ONE 8(12): doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082261

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