The idea that speech originated not just in relatively recent times but with the common ancestors of modern humans and Neanderthals some 500,000 years ago is gaining ground. Now a new paper strongly suggests that the Kebara 2 Neanderthals dating from approximately 60,000 years ago, had and used speech. And – I would speculate – that most Neanderthals then had some form of rudimentary speech.
I have no doubt that speech originated from an intense need to communicate and developed in complexity and sophistication as the complex needs of the societies that developed required more nuanced communication. And if this happened 500,000 years ago then I find it not implausible that there are connections between the controlled use of fire, the growth of complex social interactions, the need for nuanced communications and the development of speech. Visions arise of camp fires and a society with time for gatherings and then – inevitably – for story-telling! And for tall tales. Lying after all is a construct of language!
Ruggero D’Anastasio, Stephen Wroe, Claudio Tuniz, Lucia Mancini, Deneb T. Cesana, Diego Dreossi, Mayoorendra Ravichandiran, Marie Attard, William C. H. Parr, Anne Agur, Luigi Capasso. Micro-Biomechanics of the Kebara 2 Hyoid and Its Implications for Speech in Neanderthals. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (12): e82261 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0082261
Abstract: The description of a Neanderthal hyoid from Kebara Cave (Israel) in 1989 fuelled scientific debate on the evolution of speech and complex language. Gross anatomy of the Kebara 2 hyoid differs little from that of modern humans. However, whether Homo neanderthalensis could use speech or complex language remains controversial. Similarity in overall shape does not necessarily demonstrate that the Kebara 2 hyoid was used in the same way as that of Homo sapiens. The mechanical performance of whole bones is partly controlled by internal trabecular geometries, regulated by bone-remodelling in response to the forces applied. Here we show that the Neanderthal and modern human hyoids also present very similar internal architectures and micro-biomechanical behaviours. Our study incorporates detailed analysis of histology, meticulous reconstruction of musculature, and computational biomechanical analysis with models incorporating internal micro-geometry. Because internal architecture reflects the loadings to which a bone is routinely subjected, our findings are consistent with a capacity for speech in the Neanderthals.
The authors conclude
…… that the presence of modern-human-like histological features and micro-biomechanical behavior in the Kebara 2 hyoid indicates that this bone not only resembled that of a modern human, but that it was used in very similar ways. This is because the internal microarchitecture is a response to the vectors and magnitudes of the forces to which it is routinely subjected. These findings are consistent with the suggestion that the Kebara 2 Neanderthal practiced speech (sensu Duchin 1990) although they do not prove that this was so. We are also mindful of the fact that our sample size is small and that the addition of further models of more modern human material, as well as specimens of Pan troglodytes and/or Pan paniscus, are needed before any firmer conclusions could be drawn. Previous studies have shown that anatomical features of the outer and middle ear associated with the perception of speech were also present in H. heidelbergensis. Based on recent vocal tract reconstruction of both H. heidelbergensis (cranium 5 from Sima de los Huesos) and H. neanderthalensis (La Ferrassie 1) and comparisons with modern humans, it has been inferred that not only H. neanderthalensis, but perhaps this common ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern humans may have been capable of speech. Micro-biomechanical modeling of hyoid material referred to H. heidelbergensis could help to resolve this question.