Hyoid Bone In Neanderthals' Necks Suggests That They Could Speak Like Humans

By Josh Lieberman on December 20, 2013 4:09 PM EST

neanderthal
A hyoid bone discovered in 1989 suggests that Neanderthals were able to speak like modern humans. Above, a reconstruction of a Neanderthal male who lived about 70,000 years ago. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A bone in the neck of Neanderthals suggests they were able to speak, according to a study published this week in PLoS One. The hyoid bone is a horseshoe-shaped structure located between the chin and larynx. The bone supports the tongue, and without it complex speech is not possible. 

The hyoid bone that researchers studied comes from the Kebara cave in northern Israel, where a 60,000-year-old young adult Neanderthal known as Kebara 2 was discovered in 1989. The hyoid bone of Kebara 2 was the first such Neanderthal bone ever discovered, and immediately led to speculation about Neanderthals' possible speech capabilities. The idea has remained controversial ever since. 

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International researchers from Canada, Australia, the U.S. and several other nations have revisited the 1989 Kebara 2 bone and run it through computer simulations. Using x-ray microtomography, which creates cross sections of an object that can be turned into a virtual 3D model, the researchers were able to see how the virtual hyoid bone interacted with surrounding bones. They found that the structure of Kebara 2's hyoid showed signs of "intense and constant metabolic activity"--or, activity from language.     

"We would argue that this is a very significant step forward," said study co-author Stephen Wroe of the University of New South Wales, in Australia. "It shows that the Kebara 2 hyoid doesn't just look like those of modern humans--it was used in a very similar way."

Dan Dediu, a senior investigator from the Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, said that the study added weight to the idea that Neanderthals spoke. Earlier this year, Dediu published a paper which argued that a "recognizably modern language" predated the common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals. 

"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," Dediu told BBC News.

For his part, Wroe said that his team's conclusions weren't the final word on talking Neanderthals. Said Wroe, "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."

A number of recent studies have shown that Neanderthals may be more complex than we've previously thought. A study from earlier this week found that Neanderthals buried their dead before they ever came into contact with modern humans, and earlier this month, a study published in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology found that Neanderthals organized their living spaces into distinct areas for different activities.    

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