Since the discovery of Neandertal remains in Europe in 1829, scientists have been fascinated by the relationship of Neandertals to modern humans. One question involves whether they communicated through spoken language. Because language doesn’t fossilize, we rely on indirect data. DNA analysis reveals that Neandertals had the human form of the FOXP2 gene, associated with our ability to comprehend grammar and control the mouth movements used in speech. Another clue comes in the form of the hyoid bone, a small horseshoe-shaped bone that supports the muscles involved in sound production. The Neandertal hyoid bone is indistinguishable from that of a modern human, suggesting a capacity for human-like speech. However, the anatomy of the Neandertal vocal tract suggests that their ability to make vowel sounds was more limited than ours. Although we don’t know for certain, it seems likely that Neandertals were capable of language but that their ability to produce words may have differed from that of modern humans.
Dr. Sylvia Amsler is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.