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Scientists Determining Vocal Qualities of Neanderthals

on April 19, 2008
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New Scientist: “Neanderthals Speak Out after 30,000 Years” You’re wandering the ominous halls of a secular natural science museum after hours one night. Walking through the “prehistoric” man displays, the model of a 30,000-year-old Neanderthal behind you opens his mouth and ekes out a ghastly sentence: “Evolution . . . is . . . true!”

A far-fetched night at the museum? Of course. But making a Neanderthal talk has been the latest project of Florida Atlantic University anthropologist Robert McCarthy, who has used a computer synthesizer in an attempt to replicate what Neanderthals may have sounded like.

He says Neanderthals lacked the “quantal vowel” sound important to modern speech.

McCarthy reconstructed Neanderthal vocal tracts based on fossils (said to be 50,000 years old) to create the synthetic voice. However, he says Neanderthals lacked the “quantal vowel” sound important to modern speech.

The argument that Neanderthals couldn’t communicate as well as modern humans goes against signs of Neanderthal complexity and communication unearthed by archaeologists, however.

McCarthy’s Neanderthal voice simulation replicated a Neanderthal pronouncing a single letter, E. However, it sounds different than a modern human saying the same sound (compare the Neanderthal’s E to a supposed modern human’s E).

While McCarthy says this would have limited Neanderthal communication, Washington University anthropologist Erik Trinkaus disputes the finding’s significance: “Ultimately what is important is not the anatomy of the mouth but the neuronal control of it,” Trinkaus says, referencing Neanderthals’ large brains. Neanderthals also possessed a version of the FOXP2 gene (the so-called “language gene”) that is unique in humans, separating us from other animals (including chimpanzees). Humans missing FOXP2 suffer from language and speech disorders.

Ultimately, it is impossible to reproduce with absolute accuracy what Neanderthals would have sounded like, and what vowels they could produce, from mere fossils. Furthermore, even if Neanderthals were unable to produce a particular vowel, that may not be any more of a sign of communication breakdown than the inability of certain modern humans to pronounce the sounds of various foreign languages. For all we know, Neanderthals may have been able to produce many more sounds than modern humans can.

Most important to remember, though, is that despite some skeletal differences, archaeologists have shown Neanderthals to be highly intelligent individuals who likely differed little from other humans during their time on earth, and who, like us, descended from Adam and thus carried God’s image.


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