A mystery of human evolution may finally have been solved by scientists who claim Neanderthals had the ability to perceive and produce speech like us.
Researchers reconstructed the hearing of our closest ancient human relatives to build a picture of how they communicated.
By studying CT scans, scientists were able to create virtual 3D models of the ear structures in Homo sapiens and Neanderthals as well as earlier fossils.
Specialist software was then used to estimate their hearing abilities as up to 5 kHz, which encompasses most of the frequency range of modern human speech sounds.
Results suggest Neanderthals did possess a wider bandwidth compared with their ancestors from Atapuerca, a significant archaeological site in Spain known for its wealth of human fossils.
This means Neanderthals had their ears “tuned” to perceive frequencies for speaking.
“This really is the key,” said Alcala University’s Professor Mercedes Conde-Valverde, lead author of the research, which is published in the Nature Ecology & Evolution journal.
Professor Rolf Quam, from Binghamton University, added: “One of the other interesting results from the study was the suggestion that Neanderthal speech likely included an increased use of consonants.
“Most previous studies of Neanderthal speech capacities focused on their ability to produce the main vowels in English spoken language.
“However, we feel this emphasis is misplaced, since the use of consonants is a way to include more information in the vocal signal and it also separates human speech and language from the communication patterns in nearly all other primates.
“The fact that our study picked up on this is a really interesting aspect of the research and is a novel suggestion regarding the linguistic capacities in our fossil ancestors.”