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Neandertal neck bone sparks cross talk.

A small, U-shaped neck bone found in 1988 among the remains of a 60,000-year-old Neandertal skeleton in Israel continues to generate heated debate over the extent to which Neandertals could talk. Two opposing views of the tiny fossil's linguistic implications emerged at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Toronto last week.

Comparison of the bone, known as the hyoid, across different mammalian groups indicates that its shape alone says nothing about the capacity of a Neandertal or any other creature to speak, contend Joy S. Reidenberg and Jeffrey T. Laitman, anatomists at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. David W. Frayer of the University of Kansas in Lawrence disagrees. He says Reidenberg and Laitman use misleading measures that mask the close resemblance of the fossil to modern human hyoids.

"This fossil has literally set us at each other's throats," Lairman says.

The debate carries over from a related dispute about how to measure the degree of bend in the base of a fossil skull (SN: 4/11/92, p. 230). Frayer identified an arched cranial base on four European Neandertals, suggesting they had speech capacities equivalent to ours; Laitman reported greater cranial base flattening among Neandertals than among modern humans.

In their new study, the Mount Sinai investigators took measurements of hyoid shape and size from a variety of mammals, including humans, apes, gibbons, baboons, dogs, sheep, pigs, rabbits, rats, dolphins, and whales.

Considerable variation in hyoid shape appeared, both among species and among individuals in the same species, Reidenberg says. Even within species that exhibit little variation in the neck position of the hyoid, individuals display marked differences in the bone's shape, suggesting that the shape of a single hyoid offers no clues as to where it sat in the neck, she asserts.

Further analysis found marked overlap between human and pig hyoids on four of six measures of shape and size, Reidenberg says. Pig hyoids overlap with the Neandertal specimen on two of those measures, she holds.

The discoverers of the Neandertal hyoid reported that the specimen overlaps with modern human hyoids on five of the same six measures (SN: 7/8/89, p. 24).

Despite the anatomical ties between pig and human hyoids, only humans possess a voice box positioned low in the neck and a vocal tract capable of producing speech sounds, Reidenberg says. Thus, researchers should not assume that the fossil hyoid's shape announces an advanced capacity for speech among Neandertals, she concludes.

Frayer also compared pig and human hyoids. Shape differences are readily apparent and seem to stem from the bone's contrasting functions in pigs and humans, he argues. Reidenberg and Laitman's focus on a few discrete features rather than the whole bone may mask these divergences, in his view.

The Neandertal hyoid is "indistinguishable" from those of modern humans, Frayer contends.

The fossil's shape does not establish where the Neandertal voice box lay, he adds. But Frayer deems Reidenberg and Laitman's data "irrelevant."

Other researchers have theorized that the cold, dry climate faced by European Neandertals forced them to breathe extensively through the nose and to evolve expanded nasal cavities. This process may have constricted the Neandertal vocal tract somewhat, Laitman proposes.

"In my opinion, Neandertals are us, but with a twist," he argues. "The upper respiratory system may be the key to understanding that twist."
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Title Annotation:hyoid fossil may indicate capacity for speech
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 24, 1993
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