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Study Suggests Neanderthals Could Speak (the Kebara Hyoid)



In the 80s, a Neanderthal burial was uncovered in Kebara Cave, Israel, which was complete enough as to include a hyoid bone, the only free-floating bone in the human body. 

The hyoid is positioned at the base of the tongue root in humans.  In Australopithecines, the hyoid lacks the scoop shape of modern humans.  This Neanderthal hyoid, however, was just like modern humans.

The other day, PLOS One published a new article on the Kebara hyoid:http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0082261

The BBC article linked above described the article as arguing for Neanderthals having speech just like modern humans - which I find a bit of a stretch, since a quote from the abstract is:

"Similarity in overall shape does not necessarily demonstrate that the Kebara 2 hyoid was used in the same way as that of Homo sapiens... Because internal architecture reflects the loadings to which a bone is routinely subjected, our findings are consistent with a capacity for speech in the Neanderthals."

So their findings are 'consistent' with the idea of Neanderthal complex speech, but the morphology isn't a demonstration of it like the BBC would print in its headlines.

What do you guys think? Although I personally support complex speech in Neanderthals, it is not because of their morphology, it is rather because of their behaviour.


It certainly wouldn't surprise me if Neanderthals could talk, to whatever degree, though, I wouldn't know. Although commonly thought of as a "pimitive" brute, science is continually shedding new light on their intellect, and it continues to surprise.

This is another documentary that I quite like:

 :D ;D ;D ;D :'(

Haha... that was truly hilarious. Thanks for the link.

Cory, I know very little of this. But from I do remember a few years ago in my intro to phonetics course the basic point that the skull shape is different enough that fewer contrastive vowels would be expected, so you'd have something like 3 cardinal vowels (i, u, a) rather than the 5 we know in humans. I don't know if that's technically accurate, but regardless I don't see why this is evidence for anything.

Janson (2012) suggests a window of 2 million to 40,000 years ago for the development of language; I agree. And the 2 million is about when the physical apparatus (via the fossil record) started to look something like what could produce speech as we know. But that doesn't really mean that speech was impossible before that-- it was just different. In the last chapter of the book, Janson then goes on to claim that absolutely certainly human language won't exist in 2 million years (in the future)-- why? It will have evolved so much it won't be recognizably the same thing. While I find that phrasing a little odd, it is true. Older Humans (and Neanderthals) were different; but why not (or why) think they had speech?

The real issue here is something about cause and effect: did the bone cause speech? Probably not. Did the need to speak clearly cause the bone to evolve? Probably not-- or if so it took many years (100s of thousands? More? Less?) to evolve, so humans could already speak before the bone changed. I don't see the connection.

They also had larger cranial capacities. :D


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