An ancient bone belonging to a Neanderthal may change the way we think our human ancestors communicated.
Tests performed on a 60,000 year-old Neanderthal hyoid bone show that the bone is “indistinguishable from our own,” suggesting the ancient humans used their vocal tract in a manner comparable to the way modern humans do. The new findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.
"To many, the Neanderthal hyoid discovered was surprising because its shape was very different to that of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. However, it was virtually indistinguishable from that of our own species. This led to some people arguing that this Neanderthal could speak," Stephen Wroe, a zoologist and paleontologist with the University of New England, said in a statement.
The bone, which was discovered in Israel in 1989, was subjected to 3D X-ray imaging that allowed researchers to create a virtual model of the hyoid bone -- a bone located between the chin and cartilage near the thyroid that supports the tongue and raises the larynx to allow for vocalization and swallowing.
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When the bone was first found, the technology at the time didn’t exist to confirm the theory that the bone’s resemblance to modern humans means they had similar communication patters. The latest study was able to revisit the argument and make a firmer conclusion.
"By analyzing the mechanical behavior of the fossilized bone with micro x-ray imaging, we were able to build models of the hyoid that included the intricate internal structure of the bone,” Wroe said. "From this research, we can conclude that it's likely that the origins of speech and language are far, far older than once thought."
A commonly held theory dates the use of speech to about 100,000 years ago where only modern humans were capable of complex speech. Wroe says other, older hyoid bones found more recently are more than 500,000 years old. While they haven’t been modeled, the bones are likely similar to those of modern humans and Neanderthals, Wroe says. This may mean that language can be dated back even further.
While the latest study may challenge the origins of speech, it does not definitively prove Neanderthals spoke, Wrote told the BBC.
“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."