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19 January 2014
Neanderthals could speak like modern humans

Analysis of a Neanderthal's fossilised hyoid bone - a horseshoe-shaped structure in the neck - suggests the species had the ability to speak. This has been suspected since the discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid that looks just like a modern human's, but now computer modelling has shown this bone was also used in a very similar way.
     The hyoid bone is crucial for speaking as it supports the root of the tongue. In non-human primates, it is not in the right position to vocalise like humans.
     It was commonly believed that complex language did not evolve until about 100,000 years ago, and that modern humans were the only ones capable of complex speech, but that changed with the 1989 discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid bone very similar to our own in the Kebara Cave in Israel.
     3D x-ray imaging and mechanical modelling allow researchers to see how the hyoid behaves in relation to the surrounding bones. Stephen Wroe, from the University of New England, Armidale, in Australia, said: "It shows that the Kebara 2 hyoid doesn't just look like those of modern humans - it was used in a very similar way."
     Much older hyoid fossils have also recently been discovered, attributed to the human and Neanderthal relative Homo heidelbergensis. They were found in Spain and are over 500,000 years old. These have yet to be modelled, but Professor Wroe said they were likely to be very similar to those of modern humans and Neanderthals, so could take the origins of speech back still further.
     Dan Dediu, from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Netherlands, has himself suggested that Neanderthals and modern humans shared a similar capacity for language. Of the new study, Dediu says: "The authors themselves are understandably cautious in drawing strong conclusions, but I think that their work clearly supports the contention that speech and language is an old feature of our lineage going back at least to the last common ancestor that we shared with the Neanderthals."

Edited from BBC News (20 December 2013)

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