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Neanderthal Thinking

Look up ‘Neanderthal’ in the New Oxford American Dictionary and you will find “adjective: uncivilized, unintelligent, and uncouth.” Yet recent scientific studies continue to show that Neanderthals, as a species, were actually quite sophisticated.

Neanderthals, or Homo neanderthalensis, are our closest relatives, living from around 200,000 years ago until about 40,000 years ago. They walked upright. With dextrous thumbs, they buried their dead, built wooden tools, partook in cave art. They made three-stranded string, which may not seem like a big deal, but implies an understanding of pairs, sets, numbers. It also could mean they carried around clothes, rope, and bags, like we do — though these have not survived the sands of time to be unearthed by a scientist.

Source: Mercedes Conde-Valverde

A recent study out of University of Madrid, in Spain, chalks up another achievement for the species: the ability to hear language. Say what?

The research team made 3-D scans using computerized tomography (commonly known as CAT scan) to build digital models of the inner ear structure of five Neanderthals. They then compared the transmission signals between the simulated organs with those of modern humans. For reference, the “frequency bandwidth” in the ears of chimpanzees and early human ancestors is not able to pick up the acoustic signals that characterize human speech. However, the study found that that bandwidth did not differ within the ears of Neanderthals and those of modern humans.

To be sure, Neanderthals and modern humans share several anatomical differences. Where we have rounded foreheads, Neanderthals had a prominent brow ridge above their eyes. They had a big and wide nose, which likely helped them increase airflow to the lungs in active lifestyles. (In cold environments, Neanderthals required nearly twice as many calories as modern humans.) Neanderthals had bigger brains, but a smaller, stockier physique. Their larynx sat higher up in the throat than ours do, which, for a while, at least, led scientists to believe them being unable to produce the complex sounds usually associated with speech.

The new research has some tantalizing implications. If Neanderthals could hear the same sounds as humans, is it farfetched to think that they made sounds like us? Mercedes Conde-Valerde, the lead author of the study, doesn’t think so. In a recent press release, she said, “Neandertals possessed a communication system that was as complex and efficient as modern human speech.”

The author goes on to suggest that Neanderthal sound probably produced more consonants, and less vowels — for example, sounds, when made in English, resemble “t,” “k,” and “f,” “s,” and “th.”

As of 40,000 years ago, we are the only hominid species in existence. But to think: before that, maybe Homo neanderthalensis and Homo Sapiens gathered ‘round the fire, and fumbled with sounds in an attempt to understand each other, the same way two foreigners do today when they don’t speak the same language.


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