WASHINGTON (CBSDC) — Computer analysis of Neanderthal bone structure suggests that the extinct species of early humans could likely speak in a manner similar to modern humans.

The 1980s discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid bone in an Israeli cave began scientific controversy whether the Homo neanderthalensis could use speech or complex language similar to modern humans, PLOS One reports.  The bone, which supports the root of the tongue and is crucial to speech, was analyzed using 3-D x-ray technology to reconstruct the Neanderthal bone structure.

Stephen Wroe of the University of New England writes: “We would argue that this is a very significant step forward. It shows that the Kebara 2 hyoid doesn’t just look like those of modern humans — it was used in a very similar way.”

Neanderthals are typically classified by palaentologists as having existed in Europe as early as 600,000-350,000 years ago, and some argue that they are a subspecies of modern Homo sapiens, although this is controversial as well. Neanderthal DNA differs by only 0.3 percent from modern humans.

“Many would argue that our capacity for speech and language is among the most fundamental of characteristics that make us human. If Neanderthals also had language then they were truly human, too.”

Neanderthals were shorter and more thickset than modern humans, with no chins and foreheads that sloped backwards. They are named from the Neandertal region of Germany in which such Homo neanderthalensis fossils were found in the 1850s.

The 3-D imaging allowed the researchers to see how the bone would be used to vocalize speech in Neanderthals, and the researchers concluded that it was “highly suggestive” that they used complex speech similar to modern-day humans.

The researchers hope that continued research will not only inform scientists of the similarities the Neanderthals share with modern humans, but also challenge the commonly-held belief that complex language did not exist until about 100,000 years ago, and that modern humans are the only species capable of complex speech.


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