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Neanderthal model

Unlike chimpanzees, Neanderthals (artist’s illustration) might have heard consonants more easily than vowels. Credit: S. Plailly/E. Daynes/Science Photo Library

Evolution

Neanderthals could hear like we can

Modelling of Neanderthal ear canals reveals they were tuned to certain sounds that are common in modern speech.

The anatomy and physiology of the Neanderthal ear suggests that these early humans could communicate much like modern humans do.

Scientists disagree on whether the vocal tracts of Neanderthals could have produced the most common sounds in modern-human speech. To explore what these extinct relatives of Homo sapiens could hear, Mercedes Conde-Valverde, at the University of Alcalá in Madrid, Spain, and her colleagues created 3D reconstructions of the middle and outer ears of five Neanderthal individuals and assessed which sound frequencies the structures could hear well.

The results suggest that Neanderthals heard a range of frequencies similar to that heard by modern humans. The capabilities of both species skew towards higher frequencies made when pronouncing consonant sounds, such as those corresponding to the English letters T, K and F. This is a departure from many non-human animals, such as chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), whose hearing is focused predominantly on vowel sounds.

Language also requires symbolism, which is difficult to recover from fossils. However, the authors note that cave art from the Neanderthals’ time suggests that they could think abstractly.

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