Humans may be even closer to their Neanderthal cousins than they previously thought. According to new research, the extinct human species had language and speech capabilities much like modern-day humans.
Dutch researchers Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson argue in a paper that modern speech dates back to the Neanderthals and Denisovans, human species that died out roughly half a million years ago, according to a statement. If so, modern language could be 1 million years old, not 10,000 to 50,000 years old as is widely believed by the scientific community.
The two researchers from the Max Planck Institute in the Netherlands drew their conclusion based on their interpretation of DNA evidence, palaeoanthropological and archaeological discoveries surrounding Neanderthals. One piece of evidence that may shed light on the theory is the genetic evidence that modern humans interacted with Neanderthals and Denisovans in Africa. In the same way humans carry some of their genes, perhaps African and non-African languages have Neanderthal origins.
One of the genes modern humans and Neanderthals share in common is FOXP2, a gene associated with language. While some variants are linked to language dysfunction in modern humans and some believe that Neanderthals were incapable of producing vowel the vowel sounds “a,” “e” and “u” – that may not be the case. New anatomical research shows that Neanderthals had the same genetic sequence as modern humans, making them capable of speech, the New York Times reports.
While theories surrounding the origin of speech vary from the belief that language arose with creativity and self-awareness to stone technology from 2 million years ago -- scientists have relied on computer models of the human vocal tract to determine how different species produced sound, BBC reports.
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“I estimated what a Neanderthal's vocal tract would look like if it had a human-like vocal tract as well as a chimp-like vocal tract. You can input the basic shapes into a computer program, which returns the acoustical properties for the vowel ‘e,’” Franklin Yates of George Washington University told the BBC.
According to Yates, Neanderthals had deeper voices than modern humans.
“Their voices would have been very deep compared to our own. They would have had an entirely different octave range. So if Barry White had sung in a choir of Neanderthals, he would have been the tenor,” Yates said.