Neandertal man was not morphologically handicapped for speech
- Authors: Louis-Jean Boë 1 ; Shinji Maeda 2 ; Jean-Louis Heim 3
- Source: Evolution of Communication, Volume 3, Issue 1, 1999 , pages 49 –77
Since Lieberman and Crelin (1971) postulated a theory that Neandertals were speechless species, the speech capability of Neandertals has been a subject of hot debate for over 30 years and remains as a controversial question. These authors claimed that the acquisition of a low laryngeal position during evolution is a necessary condition for having a vowel space large enough to realize the necessary vocalic contrasts for speech. Moreover, Neandertals didn't posses this anatomical base and therefore could not speak, presumably causing their extinction. In this study, we refute Lieberman and Crelin's theory by showing, first with the analysis of biometric data, that the estimated laryngeal position for two Neandertals is relatively high, but not as high as claimed by the two authors. In fact, the length ratio of the pharyngeal cavity to the oral cavity, i.e., an acoustically important parameter, of the Neandertals corresponds to that of a modern female adult or of a child. Second, using an anthropomorphic articulatory model, the potentially maximum vowel space estimated by varying the model morphology from a newborn, a child, a female adult and to a male adult didn't show any relevant variation. We infer then that a Neandertal could have a vowel space no smaller than that of a modern human. Our study is strictly limited to the morphological aspects of the vocal tract. We, therefore, cannot offer any definitive answer to the question whether Neandertals actually spoke or not. But we feel safe saying that Neandertals were not morphologically handicapped for speech.
Affiliations: 1: INPG/Université Stendhal; 2: ENST; 3: Laboratoire d'Anthropologie