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19 March 2005
Neanderthals may have had high-pitched voices

Neanderthals had strong, yet high-pitched, voices that they used for both singing and speaking, says a UK researcher. The theory suggests that Neanderthals, who once lived in Europe from around 200,000 to 35,000 BCE, were intelligent and socially complex. It also indicates that although Neanderthals were likely to have represented a unique species, they had more in common with modern humans than previously thought.
     Stephen Mithen, a professor of archaeology at the University of Reading, made the determination after studying the skeletal remains of Neanderthals. He compared related skeletal Neanderthal data with that of monkeys and other members of the ape family, including modern humans. In a recent University College London seminar, Mithen explained that Neanderthal anatomy suggests the early hominins had the physical ability to communicate with pitch and melody. He believes they probably used these abilities in a form of communication that was half spoken and half sung.
     Jeffrey Laitman is professor and director of anatomy and functional morphology, as well as otolaryngology, at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. He is also an expert on Neanderthals, particularly in terms of analysing their head and neck regions. "My curiosity is peaked by Mithen's theory that Neanderthals sang and had feminine-toned voices. But I think these attributes would be difficult to prove even with the recent Neanderthal reconstruction," Laitman says. "No Neanderthal larynx exists because the tissue does not fossilise. We have to reconstruct it."
     Laitman says he and other researchers often use existing portions of Neanderthal skulls to build the voice box area. Through such work, he has learned that Neanderthals, Australopithecines and other prehistoric hominids had a larynx positioned high in the throat. "The structure is comparable to what we see in monkeys and apes today," Laitman says. "Apes do have language and culture, but the sounds they make are more limited than those produced by humans." Due to the Neanderthal's impressive brain size, which was larger than the grey matter of most modern humans, Laitman emphatically believes they had linguistic abilities.  "Neanderthals probably made different sounds because, in part, they could not have used all of the vowels we do. For example, they could not have said 'ooh', 'ahh' or 'eee'."  Since Neanderthals had distinctive nasal, ear and sinus anatomical features, Laitman believes they were specialised for respiration, which would have given them a 'nasally' voice.  It is unclear why the larynx of modern humans dropped lower in the throat around a million and a half years ago.
     Associate Professor Janet Monge, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and another Neanderthal expert, is sceptical about the new singing Neanderthal theory. She says that language and singing do not use the same neurosubstrates, so she questions how a link could be made between the two, especially since in humans, language can be melodious and high-pitched without literally moving into full song.

Source: Discovery News (15 March 2005)

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