Reconstructing Neandertal Vocalizations

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.

9 thoughts on “Reconstructing Neandertal Vocalizations

  1. You seem to be saying that an individual incapable of speaking as you do would be incapable of speech. Is that what you mean? Also, to say that a Neanderthal would be incapable of “modern speech” is a straw man attack. They were not “modern” Homo sapiens, but that in no way means that they could not have used vocal apparatus to communicate. I personally have no evidence as to whether Neanderthals spoke, but I am fairly sure that their having “humorous” voices is irrelevant to the argument.

  2. No Nemo,

    I’m not saying that. Robert McCarthy is the one who said that. He studied the bones and presented his finding at the AAPA 2008 meeting. His conclusions were that Neandertal anatomy prevented production “quantal vowel” sounds that underlie modern speech and that they were unable to track audible cues between individuals. I suggest you read before you write a mistaken comment like that.

    My issues with the research were that I found the voice reconstructions comical. Also, based upon a previous study by DeGusta et al., I do not feel confident with inferring vocalization based upon morphology.

    Again, I recommend you read in detail before commenting.


  3. Well, IMO, the research stinks, especially, again IMO, if it was in any way derived from Lieberman’s “ideas” on this issue. Other lines of evidence seem to suggest Neandertals (probably) had the same speech and language capacities we do, whatever they might have sounded like. And, like Kambiz, I found this um, “reconstruction” of a Neandertal voice, pretty laughable.
    Anne G

  4. I find that Neandertal vocalization thoroughly delightful and funny. Could you make it downloadable? I think it would make a great error beep.

  5. Haha the sound is quite random. I think I would get annoyed of it though after a while listening to it.

    Anyhow, great blog post mate. Keep up the great work!

  6. As someone who teaches this every year I am always puzzled by this debate. It is of interest of course, and worthy of study, but so much of it is besides the point. We can understand a parrot when it imitates a person – but it certainly doesn’t sound like a human or have the same vowel sounds. People with no vocal aparatus use machines to speak that sound very strange. International students in universities often speak vowel sounds strangely to the ears of local natives but can be understood. Why does what sounds Neandertals made have any bearing on their ability to communicate? They probably had a whole range of subtle sounds that they understood to be different, that we would have a hard time hearing. The fact that ‘we’ and not ‘they’ made it this far is the only reason why we see their speech as having some deficit.

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