An analysis of a fossil bone suggests Neanderthals may have had the ability to speak, an Australian researcher says.
Stephen Wroe of the University of New South Wales, working with an international team, says the researchers were able to determine how the Hyoid bone — a horseshoe shaped structure in the neck — worked in Neanderthals.
Wroe said the findings are “highly suggestive” of complex speech in Neanderthals.
The hyoid bone is crucial for speech, as it supports the root of the tongue. Non-human primates cannot vocalize as humans do because the hyoid bones are not placed in the right position.
The new discovery challenges the idea that complex language is just 100,000 years old and is exclusive to modern humans. The study will also likely prompt the 3-D modeling and examination of other hyoid bones, some of which are dated 500,000 years and older.
Wroe said most have not been examined the way the Kbara 2 (named after the cave in Israel where it was found) fossil has, but will likely support what the new study suggests.
“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,” Wroe said.
Dan Dediu, from the Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics, Netherlands, said the new study affirms what he suggested in a review article earlier this year. He argued in Frontiers in Psychology that Neanderthals were capable of language.
“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.” Dr. Dediu told BBC News.