Magazine article Science News

Neanderthals to Investigators: Can We Talk?

Magazine article Science News

Neanderthals to Investigators: Can We Talk?

Article excerpt

European Neadertals, who lived from about 130,000 to 35,000 years ago, possessed all the anatomical tools needed for speaking as modern humans do, according to a report presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Las Vegas last week.

The new analysis of Neadertal and modern human skulls, conducted by David W. Frayer of the University of Kansas in Lawrence, enters a debate over Neadertal vocal capacities that began in the 1970s. Arguments intensified recently with the discovery of a small neck bone said by its discoverers to demonstrate a fully modern facility for speech among Neadertals (SN: 7/8/89, p.24).

"Neadertal speech and language ability was equivalent to ours," Frayer maintains. "Whether they indeed did speak is another issue."

Frayer studied the degree of bend in the base, or basicranium, of Neadertal and modern human skulls. A flat basicranium -- ubiquitous in nonhuman animals -- indicates that the larynx, or voide box, sits high in the neck. An arched cranial base signifies a lower larynx and a vocal tract capable of producing the sounds of modern human speech.

Often, important features of the basicranium are poorly preserved on ancient fossils. In his study, Frayer relied on a measurement of the angle from a relatively easily determined point near the center of the basicranium to a point at the front of the upper jaw.

The extent of basicranial flattening in four European Neandertal specimens falls within the range observed in a sample of modern human skulls dating from 25,000 years ago to medieval times, Frayer contends. …

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