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Neanderthals to investigators: can we talk?

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. In fact, some of the older modern skulls display flatter skull bases than the Neadertals, he says. The evidence supports theories of a close evolutionary link between Neadertals and modern humans, he adds.

One of the Neadertal skulls studied by Frayer was reconstructed in 1989 by a French anthropologist who are argued that the angle of its basicranium falls within the range of modern humans.

Other researchers, led by anatomist Jeffrey T. Laitman of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and linguist Philip Lieberman of Brown University in Providence, R.I., discern a flatter cranial base and more restricted speech ability in European Neadertals than in modern humans. Laitman's group estimates the position of several anatomical markers on fossils to determine four basicranial angles from the back of the head to the jaw; Lieberman devised a computer model of the Neadertal vocal tract based on the skull that was later reconfigured by the French investigator.

Although Neadertals had the ability to vocalize, their speech quality fell short of that exhibited by modern humans, Laitman asserted at the Las Vegas meeting. "I'd advise caution in measuring only one angle on the basicranium, as Frayer did," he says.

Frayer cites the poor preservation of basicranial features as the prime reason for using his study method. "I'm uncomfortable with how much of the cranial base is missing on Neadertal specimens, he remarks.
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Title Annotation:vocal abilities in pre-historic humans
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 11, 1992
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