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Neanderthals speak out after 30,000 years
by Ewen Callaway
Reconstruction of a Neanderthal child's face (Image: Anthropological Institute, University of Zürich)
Talk about a long silence – no one has heard their voices for 30,000 years. Now the long-extinct Neanderthals are speaking up – or at least a computer synthesiser is doing so on their behalf.
Robert McCarthy, an anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton has used new reconstructions of Neanderthal vocal tracts to simulate the voice. He says the ancient human's speech lacked the "quantal vowel" sounds that underlie modern speech.
Quantal vowels provide cues that help speakers with different size vocal tracts understand one another, says McCarthy, who was talking at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Columbus, Ohio, on April 11.
"They would have spoken a bit differently. They wouldn't have been able to produce these quantal vowels that form the basis of spoken language," he says.
In the 1970s, linguist Phil Lieberman, of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, inferred the dimensions of the larynx of a Neanderthal based on its skull. His team concluded that Neanderthal speech did not have the subtlety of modern human speech.
Some researchers have criticised this finding, citing archaeological evidence of an oral culture and even errors in Lieberman's original vocal tract reconstruction.
Undeterred, the linguist teamed with McCarthy to simulate Neanderthal speech based on new reconstructions of three Neanderthal vocal tracts. The 50,000-year old fossils all came from France.