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While we’re on the subject of Neandertal language capabilities, I want to share with you news from last week’s annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. I wasn’t there, I know a couple people who went but they didn’t tell me about Robert McCarthy‘s research. Robert has used new reconstructions of Neanderthal vocal tracts to simulate the voice, and presented his findings.

He’s not the first to have done this. Phil Lieberman estimated the dimensions of the larynx based off of skull sizes of Neandertals in the 1970’s. His work showed that Neandertals did not have a larynx like humans to catch the subtlety of modern human speech. Lieberman worked with McCarthy to simulate Neanderthal speech based on new reconstructions of three Neandertal vocal tracts.

By modeling the sounds the Neanderthal pipes would have made, McCarthy’s team engineered the sound of a Neanderthal saying “E”. He plans to eventually simulate an entire Neanderthal sentence. I’ve uploaded the sound bites for you to listen to and to be really honest, I don’t hear an “E.” I hear a sheep or a goat, but you can try figure out what you hear.

Here’s the human voice:

And here’s the Neandertal voice:

Haha, I’m laughing as I type this. I find the sounds really hilarious, especially because I expected Neandertals to have a really low pitched voice. Neandertals were more robust and larger than modern humans, and in my experience, modern humans that are larger and more robust than average have deep voices on average. So to hear high pitched “E”‘s from this simulation, I find it comical.

Anyways, for the linguists out there, McCarthy, explained that the difference in vocalizations was because Neandertal cranio-facial anatomy lacked the ability to produce “quantal vowel” sounds that underlie modern speech. Quantal vowels are necessary in providing audible cues that help speakers with different size vocal tracts understand one another.

Like I said, I don’t know exactly how McCarthy reconstructed these vocalizations. Since Lieberman collaborated with McCarthy, I expect that he did similar work. Furthermore, since only fossils of Neandertals remain, McCarthy had to compare and contrast the anatomical similarities and differences of humans and Neandertals to the vocalization. Is that the right way to do this?

Well, in 1999, David DeGusta and crew slammed Kay et al. for concluding Neandertal’s hyoid morphology indicated they were capable of modern language in, “Hypoglossal canal size and hominid speech.” So, I’m a bit skeptical.