Peopling of the World: Europe

What did one Neanderthal say to the other Neanderthal?

What did one Neanderthal say to the other Neanderthal?
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The Muslim Expansion into Europe
Celts in the British Isles
European Language Development

This mostly complete Neanderthal skeleton was found at Kebara Cave.

You may not have thought about the answer to that question, but many anthropologists have. The discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid bone in Kebara Cave in Israel has made some anthropologists believe that Neanderthals were capable of complex speech like modern humans. Others believe that the debate over Neanderthals and speech will never end because the soft tissue of the vocal tract cannot fossilize.

This is the entrance to Kebara Cave

A map shows the scope of Neanderthal territory

Kebara Cave

National Geographic


Neanderthal History


Who were the Neanderthals? Are they part of the species Homo sapiens or a separate branch on the evolutionary tree?  This is one of the debates anthropologists have been enthralled with since the first discovery of Neanderthal remains in 1856 (Gibbons, 1992).  Herman Schaafhausen recognized the fragmentary remains of a cranium and leg and arm bones found in Feldhofer cave in Neander Valley as “primitive” (Foley and Lewin, 2004) and a variant of modern humans.  Neandertals continue to cause much debate and controversy in the world of anthropology.  The debate on where the Neandertals fit in on the phylogenetic tree has yet to be resolved; in the meantime, many smaller debates have arisen concerning the life history, culture, and language of Homo neanderthalensis.  The discovery of a small Neandertal neck bone in the Middle East has intensified the debate on Neandertal speech capabilities, which started in 1970, (Bower, 1992) leading many anthropologists to believe Neandertals were capable of speech much like modern humans today.

Homo neanderthalensis dominated the Middle to Late Pleistocene dating from 130,000 to 35,000 years ago.  Their world was confined to Eurasia, stretching from Uzbekistan to the Iberian plateau in Spain (Stringer and Gamble, 1993).  The Neanderthals were not the only population present 130,000 years ago.  To the south of Europe is Africa where other closely related, yet physically distinct populations thrived (Stringer and Gamble, 1993). 

Compared to anatomically modern humans, Neanderthals are more robust and their bodies are built to withstand the cold weather of Eurasia; while anatomically modern humans are more gracile.  So what led to the extinction of such a dominating species of hominins?  “The period of first contact with anatomically modern humans to total disappearance of Eurasian Neandertals spanned 50,000 years” (Lieberman, 1992).  Why did extinction take so long?  Neandertals were obviously in competition with their successor, Cro-Magnon, who some believe were selected for because they had the ability for complex speech.  However, without the soft tissue of the vocal tract and only the fossil record, how can anthropologists be certain Neandertals could not speak?   


Some facts to make you ask questions!


In order to answer the question of speech among Neanderthals, we must first understand how speech is produced and what is required to speak.  After these questions are answered, the vocal tract of Neanderthals must be reconstructed from the Neanderthal remains in the fossil record.  The discovery of a hyoid bone at Kebara Cave in Israel has helped anthropologists visualize the vocal tract, as well as, make some anthropologists believe Neanderthals were capable of complex speech just like modern humans.

The two voice-producing structures located in the neck are the larynx and the pharynx.  In mammals, the position of the larynx is either high up in the neck allowing the animal to swallow and breathe at the same time, or it is positioned low in the neck causing the air passages to close during swallowing.  Humans possess the latter position, while all other mammals and infant humans have a larynx positioned high up.  Lieberman et al. (1992) discovered that the position of the larynx is reflected in the shape of the bottom of the skull and by looking at this feature, it is possible to tell something about the verbal skills of extinct hominin species.  Where was the larynx positioned in Neanderthals?

It is not certain where the larynx was positioned in Neanderthal anatomy; however, the discovery of a hyoid bone from a Neanderthal skeleton at Kebara Cave in Israel does help to better piece together the anatomy of the Neanderthal vocal tract.  The hyoid bone is a small, U-shaped bone that lies between the root of the tongue and the larynx and is connected to the muscles of the jaw, larynx, and tongue.  The Kebara hyoid is almost identical to a modern human hyoid (Bar-Yosef et al., 1992).  Baruch Arensberg, whose team discovered the bone, says this feature is proof that Neanderthals had the same language capacity as modern humans (Foley and Lewin, 2004). 

      It has been argued that one must possess the physiology stated above, as well as, the mental capacity of a modern human to produce complex speech(Gamble and Stringer, 1993).  However, the brain size of Neanderthals ranges from 1100-1400 cubic centimeters; which is larger than in modern humans (Foley and Lewin, 2004).  Along with differences in brain size and the discovery of the bone, several additional finds at Kebara Cave have helped anthropologists better understand the Neanderthals.  From these finds it appears Neanderthals were sophisticated, but sophisticated enough the speak?  Such things as hearths and an abundance of lithics indicate a well-organized manner, as well as an efficient use of raw materials (Bar-Yosef et al. 1992).  Is this enough to say Neanderthals had language?


The argument gets heated...!


            The debate over the speech capabilities of Homo neanderthalensis continues to grow everyday.  All that remains to spur this debate are the fossils, but how difficult is it to reconstruct behavior (including linguistic behavior) from the remains in the fossil record? (Gibbons, 1992)  This question has created two camps of debaters: the pro-Neanderthal speech camp and the anti-Neanderthal speech camp (Gibbons, 1992).  The head of the pro-speech camp is David Frayer, a paleoanthropologist for the University of Kansas.  With his data from a Neanderthal hyoid bone and a reconstructed skull, Frayer believes it is “now time to reject the notion that Neanderthals lacked the capacity for modern speech” (Frayer, 1992).  Leading the pack of anthropologists who believe Neanderthals were not capable of modern complex speech are Brown University linguist Philip Lieberman and anatomist Jeffery Laitman of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.  Lieberman and Laitman believe that the Neanderthal vocal tract is similar to that of a human infant and never evolved into that of modern Homo sapiens (Gibbons, 1992). 

            Neanderthal remains were the first fossil human remains to be found and are contemporaries of modern humans (Foley and Lewin, 2004).  One of the most famous sets of Neanderthal remains is from La Chapelle Aux Saints in France.  Jean-Louis Heim of the National Museum of Natural History took on the challenge of reconstructing the famous Neanderthal skull of La Chapelle, which had been falling apart due to decades of handling (Gibbons, 1992).  His results showed a more angled base of the cranium than in previous reconstructions (Heim, 1989).  This angle indicates a lowered placement of the larynx, similar to that of human adults.  A high larynx leaves little room for pronouncing sounds necessary for recognizable speech (Lieberman, 1992).  David Frayer used this reconstruction along with another piece of evidence found in Kebara Cave near Mount Carmel in Israel.


Kebara Cave and the finds!

Mugharet el-Kebara is located on the western side of Mt. Carmel and is at about 60-65 m above sea level.  The arched entrance is essentially the same as it was during the Middle Paleolithic and early Upper Paleolithic times.  The entrance of Kebara is made of limestone, while the cave itself was formed within dolomite.  The material from the site has been dated using absolute dating techniques like Carbon 14.  According to the results of Bar-Yosef et al. (1992), the most complete Neanderthal skeleton (KMH2) was found in Kebara Cave and is about 60,000 years old.  The skeleton is lacking its entire cranium, except for the hyoid bone.  The hyoid bone is a small, U-shaped bone that lies between the root of the tongue and the larynx and is connected to the muscles of the jaw, larynx, and tongue (Foley and Lewin, 2004). Baruch Arensburg, whose team discovered the bone, says this feature is proof that Neanderthals had the same language capacity as modern humans (Foley and Lewin, 2004).  Lieberman and camp feel that the hyoid bone and the reconstructed skull are not enough to definitely answer the question concerning Neanderthal speech capabilities.


The argument continues...

        Jeffery Laitman argues that comparative studies of various hominids show that Neanderthals had a larynx positioned higher in the throat than humans, and as a result lacked the vocal tract anatomy to produce the range of sounds necessary for modern human speech (Gibbons, 1992).  Laitman, Lieberman, and anatomist Edmund Crelin compared the skulls of fossil hominids with those of present-day human adults and newborns, apes, and chimpanzees.  From the comparisons, the team found that the base of the skull can be used to predict the structure of the vocal tract (Lieberman, 1992).   For example: a flat cranium base implies a vocal tract with a high positioned larynx.

 Before Heim reconstructed the La Chapelle cranium, the anti-Neanderthal speech camp used the skull to show that Neanderthals had a high positioned larynx because the cranium base was relatively flat.  Even after the reconstruction of the skull produced a flexed cranium base, Laitman entered Heim’s measurements into his computer, which produced a model with a larynx of a child.  A child’s larynx is not low enough to produce rapid speech.  The flexed cranium base is a derived trait that differentiates anatomically modern humans from extinct hominids like australopithecines and Homo erectus.  In contrast, Neanderthal fossils retain the primitive condition-the unflexed base cranium (Lieberman, 1992).  Lieberman also feels that the specimen KMH2 is not enough to say Neanderthals were capable of speech because the base cranium does not exist.  Therefore the vocal tract of Neanderthals cannot be reconstructed from the Kebara remains (Lieberman, 1992).

In the end...        

 Anthropologists involved in this debate are set in whether or not Neanderthals had the capability for complex speech,  but one question will remain unanswered. Is the fossil record enough?  How can we be certain that Neanderthals did or did not speak if the soft tissue of the vocal tract and tongue do not fossilize?  Research has gone as far as it can go until the next fossil Neanderthal discovery is made.  The pro-Neanderthal speech camp has a weaker case than the anti-Neanderthal speech camp, in that their results are based primarily on one bone.  Unfortunately, like many anthropological debates, this one will never be truly answered.    


Works cited page


Bar-Yosef et al. 1992. The Excavations in Kebara Cave, Mt. Carmel. 

       Current  Anthropology 33: 533-534.


Bower, B. 1992. Neanderthals to Investigators: Can we talk? Science 

       News 141:230.


Foley, R.A., & Lewin, R. 2004. Principles of Human Evolution. Malden,

       MA: Blackwell Publishing Company.


 Frayer, David. 1992. Cranial Base Flattening in Europe: Neanderthals 

       and more recent Homo sapiens. American Journal of Physical 

      Anthropology 14:77.


Gamble, C. & Stringer, C. 1993. In Search of the Neanderthals: Solving 

        the Puzzle of  Human Origins. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.


Gibbons, Ann. 1992. Neanderthal Language Debate: Tongues Wag Anew.

        Science 256: 33-34.


Lieberman et al. 1992. The Anatomy, Physiology, Acoustics and 

       Perception of speech: Essential Elements in Analysis of the

      Evolution of Human Speech. Journal of Human Evolution 23: 447-67


Lieberman, Philip. 1992. On the Kebara KMH2 Hyoid and Neanderthal

     Speech. Current  Anthropology 34: 172-175.


Lieberman, Philip. 1992. On Neanderthal Speech and Neanderthal 

    Extinction. Current Anthropology 33: 409-410.













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