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Neanderthals Capable of Human-like Speech, Bone Analysis Suggests

Dec 20, 2013 04:00 PM EST
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Neanderthals were capable of speech, according to a new analysis of a 60,000-year-old hyoid bone taken from a near-complete adult male skeleton discovered in a cave in Israel.

The hyoid is a U-shaped bone located between the chin and the larynx where it supports the tongue's muscles and, ultimately, language - hence the controversy when, in 1989, archaeologists unearthed one that looked a lot like modern humans'. Language, it was generally believed, is a distinctively human trait. 

The new study, published in the journal PLOS One, has fanned the flames of debate once again with the assertion that not only does the bone look like ours, but it would have worked a lot like it, too.

Combining 3-D X-ray imaging and mechanical modelling, the team succeeded in analyzing the bone in meticulous detail. The results, they write in the study's abstract, were "consistent with a capacity for speech in the Neanderthals."

"We were very careful not to suggest that we had proven anything beyond doubt - but I do think it will help to convince a good number of specialists and tip the weight of opinion," Stephen Wroe from the University of New South Wales told BBC News.

The study comes roughly six months after another in which Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson, both from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, argued that modern language and speech dates back 500,000 years - far beyond the widely held 50,000 years - to the last common ancestor modern humans shared with Neanderthals.

Dediu and Levinson concluded this after sifting through a wide range of material, including old and new archaeological discoveries and ancient DNA, piecing together a picture they said differed markedly from the grunting subhumans so often depicted.

"The authors themselves are understandably cautious in drawing strong conclusions but I think that their work clearly supports the contention that speech and language is an old feature of our lineage going back at least to the last common ancestor that we shared with the Neanderthals." Dediu told the BBC of the new study.

Going forward, the researchers said more examples are needed to confirm their findings, noting in their study: "We are also mindful of the fact that our sample size is small and that the addition of further models of more modern human material ... before any firmer conclusions could be drawn."

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