It's easy to think that Neanderthals were dumb brutes, incapable of complex speech like us. But it turns out that a Neanderthal's hyoid — a small bone in the neck that supports the tongue and is crucial for speech — worked in a very similar way to your own hyoid. Does this mean they could talk like (and with!) humans?
For a long time, scientists believed that modern humans were the only primates that had the capacity for complex speech. Reason being: Our unique horseshoe-shaped hyoid bone, which is the anatomical foundation of speech and something no other animal has. Indeed, other non-human primates have their own version of the hyoid, but only our bone is in the right position to work with the larynx and tongue that allows for true language.
But this human-centric belief all changed almost 25 years ago. In 1989, scientists discovered a Neanderthal hyoid bone that looked remarkably like our own. What's more, complex speech is often thought to be necessary for the development of culture, because it allows individuals to share ideas — 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, around the time that complex language was thought to have evolved in humans, Neanderthals were burying their dead, which is suggestive of religion or thoughts about the afterlife.
The evidence suggested that Neanderthals could talk, but nobody really knew if their hyoids actually worked like our own. So scientists decided to find out. BBC explains:
An international team of researchers analysed a fossil Neanderthal throat bone using 3D x-ray imaging and mechanical modelling.
This model allowed the group to see how the hyoid behaved in relation to the other surrounding bones.
Stephen Wroe, from the University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia, said: "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."
Of course, showing that Neanderthal's hyoid worked like ours does isn't definitive proof that they could speak like humans, but it is highly suggestive of it, the researchers note.
However, other scientists certainly think complex language in Neanderthals isn't so far fetched. In a review article published earlier this year, two researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands argued that modern language and speech actually go back to the most recent ancestor we shared with Neanderthals and Denisovians (another humanoid species that co-existed with Neanderthals and early humans). This would mean that complex language didn't develop 100,000 years ago, but half a million years ago.
Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.