Neanderthal man had good hearing! And even as far as we have. According to a scientific study released Monday, he even had an articulated language similar to his cousin, Homo sapiens.
The cognitive abilities of Neanderthals have long been divided among ancient anthropologists, with some arguing that only Homo sapiens, our species, have developed the ability to design and communicate symbols by incorporating word equivalents. The team of anthropologists led by Professor Mercedes Conde Valverde, a specialist in bioacoustics at the University of Alcalá, Spain, recalls that archeology is documenting more and more “complex Neanderthal behaviors”.
Today we know that like Homo sapiens, this human line whose representatives disappeared last about 40 thousand years ago, knew how to bury their dead, but also knew how to decorate their bodies or make sophisticated tools. As the French ancient anthropologist Bruno Morelli notes, our ancestors shared “with other human lineages – which differ from us in terms of their morphology (such as Neanderthals, editor’s note) – the same abilities to produce and share symbolic activities.”
“A language very close to ours”
The simple fact of producing tools points to cognitive abilities, “which translate at least a similar articulation language, very close to ours,” he says. To determine whether Neanderthals can use a language, it is necessary to determine whether they can encode concepts, and whether they have the anatomical ability to produce and perceive language, according to the authors of the study published in Ecology and Natural Evolution.
They did this by reconstructing roughly the external and intermediate auditory canals of five specimens of the Neanderthal species that lived from 130,000 to about 45,000 years ago. Then they derive values that measure their ability to pick up sounds and especially their frequency range, i.e. how far away they are. However, “the greater its size, the more different sounds are allowed to be used, and the more effective the communication is,” explains Professor Condé Valverde.
Then they compare these values with the values of two groups of individuals. Modern humans, the first ancestors of Neanderthals, and many of them have been found in Sima de los Huisos, the “Cave of Bones”, located in northern Spain and dating back 430,000 years ago.
Their conclusion is that Neanderthals share the same hearing abilities as Homo sapiens, in particular the ability to perceive sounds at higher frequencies than those of their ancestors. These high frequencies are associated with the production of consonants, which is an important characteristic of human language, and distinguishes it from the way chimpanzees communicate, and almost all mammals, which depend largely on vowels. The study indicates that consonants “have a special importance in determining the meaning of words.”
A complex audio communication system
I concluded that if a Neanderthal’s ear evolved to catch it, it was because he knew how to produce it. It concludes that there is “a complex and effective voice communication system like human language”.
According to Professor Conde Valverde, he “was able to transmit verbal information quickly and with a very low error rate”. She even believes that “if you hear two Neanderthals talking behind a curtain, without being able to see them, you would think that you are dealing with people from another country who speak a foreign language.”
Antoine Palazzo, an ancient anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History, describes the scientific article as “interesting, with a cautious approach” from the authors. In particular, their proposal is to “compare these findings with those of ancient Homo sapiens.” Ultimately, he notes, even more than biology or genetics, the key to understanding the Neanderthal being was his “cultural aspects, which are really important,” he says. Simply because we are present at levels of concepts that signify their transmission, and therefore “that we are able to make some sounds to form groups of words.”
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