Did Homo neanderthalensis Speak?

Geico Caveman-Neanderthal

Geico Caveman-Neanderthal

Homo neanderthalensis (H. neanderthalensis), the closest related species to Homo sapiens (humans) inhabited Europe during the Paleolithic era around 30,000-300,000 years ago (Mithen, 2006). The last common ancestor of H. neanderthalensis and humans was around between 300,000-500,000 years ago (Mithen, 2006). The defining characteristics of H. neanderthalensis are their stocky build, protruding brow ridges, large brains, midfacial prognathism, and their use of Mousterian tools (Boyd & Silk, 2006).   While the defining characteristics of humans are their utilization of language, reduced brow ridges, relatively big foreheads, absence of a retro-molar gap, presence of a chin, their long lean builds, and like Neanderthals use of Mousterian tools (Boyd & Silk, 2006). H. neanderthalensis and humans are so closely related that some scientists classify H. neanderthalensis as a subspecies of humans. Naturally, due to the extremely close evolutionary relationship between the two hominin species, it seems logical to contemplate whether or not H. neanderthalensis also possessed the ability to speak (language) like humans?

Contextually, language is defined as a formal system of signs, sounds, symbols or gestures that requires adherence to set rules (grammar and syntax) for the formation and transformation of admissible expressions. Language requires comprehension of symbolism and allows for the expression and communication of abstract concepts.  Furthermore, language affords the advantage over previous forms of communication of endless expression through the connection of distinct units of set meaning for the creation of complex phrases with completely new meanings. The Broca’s and Wernicke’s area of the brain area are important in language production in humans, so if H. neanderthalensis has parts of their brain with similar functions as Broca’s and Wernicke’s area this would suggest utilization of language.

Reference for the location of Broca's and Wernicke areas in the brain

Reference for the location of Broca’s and Wernicke areas in the brain

To elaborate on the aspects of the human anatomy that allow for language production, as a infant the human child produces babbling noises first then over time with the gradual progression of usage of infant directed speech by the parent the child begins saying simple words, eventually moving on to create complex sentences and becoming fluent in the language spoken by the parent. In newborn humans, the hyoid and other laryngeal structures are located very high in the neck with epiglottis contacting the soft palate (Lieberman, 1993).  Furthermore, “the tongue is positioned almost entirely within the oral cavity in the human newborn and is incapable of producing the abrupt changes in supralaryngeal-airway cross-sectional area necessary for generating the formant frequency patterns that specify sounds such as the vowels…” (Lieberman, 1993, p. 172-3).   Eventually, as the baby grows older the hyoid and other laryngeal structures descends into the base of the throat allowing for speech production (Lieberman, 1993).

Current research presents three diverging views on H. neanderthalensis’ ability to speak. Overall the founder’s of each view is very adamant about their view’s superiority over the others, the consequence of this been a very bitter ongoing quarrel in the field. The first view stressed by Phillip Lieberman and many other distinguished scientists in the field came after careful examination of the Chapell-aux-Saints Neanderthal specimen. Findings from this examination suggest that H. neanderthalensis was unable to speak, because this did not possess the appropriate anatomy for speech as their airways appeared to be closer to nonhuman configuration for producing unnasalized speech and vowels (Lieberman, 1992). “Comparative studies show that these vowels and unnasalized speech are among the ‘universals’ of modem languages and dialects” (Lieberman, 1992, p. 409).

The second view stressed by Arsensberg (1989,1990), Milo (1993), and colleagues is that H. neanderthalensis had some sort of speech (language). The skeleton of the Kebara I specimen skeleton is a piece of important evidence as it provided anthropologists with the first Neanderthal hyoid bone. The position and shape of the Kebara hyoid bone was identical to that of a modern human hyoid bone, and therefore it is assumed that the Neanderthal vocal tract was identical to that of the modern human. As a consequence the former claim made by Liebermann based upon the Chapelle-aux-Saints specimen has been widely dismissed (especially since skeleton was extremely distorted).

Kebara-hyoid bone

Kebara-hyoid bone

Other pieces of anatomical evidence supporting the claim for speech in H. neanderthalensis equivalent to those of modern humans include: the dimensions of the hypoglossal canal, the size of thoracic vertebrae, the asymmetry of H. neanderthalensis fossil brains, and the acquisition of linguistic skills in deaf children. “[T]he dimensions of the hypoglossal canal, which carries the nerves from the brain to the tongue.  The width of this is greater in modern humans than in chimpanzees and gorillas, reflecting the larger supply of nerves required for the complex motor control necessary for speech…When Richard Kay and his colleagues…measured its width on a variety of specimens, they found that those from Austrailopithecus afarensis and Homo habillis fell into the chimpanzee size range, while those from Neanderthals had a canal size equivalent to that of modern humans.  A second nerve-carrying canal measurable from fossilized remains…the thoracic vertebrae, through which the nerves for controlling the diaphragm, and hence breathing pass…[Shows] the Neanderthals had the level of respiratory control that is required for modern speech (Arsensberg, 1989, 1990). The next piece of evidence for speech in H. neanderthalensis, Aphasia studies show that the asymmetry of the two hemispheres is related to language.  This asymmetry of the two hemispheres is present in fossils of early Homo and common in H. neanderthalensis (Mithen, 2005). “The endocranial cast of the Amud 1 Neanderthal, for example, shows a markedly enlarged Broca’s area on the left side of the brain” (Mithen, 2005, p. 30).

Lastly, research presented by Milo (1993) on the acquisition of linguistic skills by deaf children suggests that elementary articulation of vocal-auditory usually occurs slightly later than the production of rudimentary gestures. The ramifications of this finding are enormous. Three conclusions can be drawn about the human evolution of linguistic capacity, which all support the fact that Neanderthal probably had speech. The first is postnatal acquisition of learned social behavior (including linguistic behavior) has been under strong selection since early in human evolution. The second, the basic neurological structures for language were in place prior to the appearance of anatomically modem H. sapiens. And the last rapidly spoken speech arose as an adaptive behavioral innovation following the evolutionary appearance of a new morphology under selection for more efficient neural processing and advanced small-motor behavior. (Milo, 1993, p. 580).

The third view stressed by Steven Mithen (2006) holds that H. neanderthalensis had advanced Holistic, manipulative, multimodal, musical, and mimetic (Hmmmm) system of communication, which is not primitive form of communication not speech (language).  While previous ancestors of H. neanderthalensis such as Homo heidelbergensis and Homo eragaster possessed a primitive form of ‘Hmmmm’, Mithen (2006) argues that extreme environment, more complex tools, their living in small socially intimate communities, care for the young and old, continued presence of immense cultural stability, and lack of symbolism indicates that H. neanderthalensis did not have speech but a more advanced form of ‘Hmmmm’.  However, the latter justification, H. neanderthalensis’ lack of symbolism is debatable since they buried their dead, which is an indication of ritualism and religion (D’Errico, Henshilwood, Lawson, Vanhaeren, Tiller, Soressi, Bresson, Maureielle, Nowell, Lakarra,Blackwell, and Julien, 2003,  p. 26), had instruments, and made jewelry.  Although they created jewelry scientists still debate whether this should be accepted as prove of their symbolism, since their had such immense cultural stability it would suggest that were they just imitating human groups that were in the area.

As this essay exemplifies the debate about whether or not H. neanderthalensis possessed the ability to speak is quite a heated topic. Though H. neanderthalensis may have possessed the physical anatomy necessary for speech (language), it is still not clear if they actually had language since scientists are still debating on whether H. neanderthalensis had symbolism. Based on the current research available there are a number of scenarios that all seem equally plausible:both groups were unable to speak like us, both had a modern language, or, as is commonly proposed, just one human type possessed this ability (while the other possessed the advanced ‘Hmmm’ or some other much more primitive form of ape communication). Presently, we have no means of confidently determining the correct model. The verdict is still out, only time will tell!

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