Linguistic Capability 

In the 1970s, linguist Philip Lieberman and anatomist Edmund Crelin stated that "Neandertals had a tongue and larynx badly placed for producing the range of sounds necessary for complex modern language" (Gibbons 1992:33). This  theory was widely believed by many anthropologist until recently, when a Neandertal skeleton was discovered in the Middle East with a hyoid bone, or throat bone, that was identical to modern man. However, since this Neandertal's hyoid and jaw bone were all that was preserved from his face, his vocal tract could not be reconstructed. Normally, in recreating such an organ, the skull is needed because impressions are left upon it, which are used to predict the position of the vocal tract. David Frayer, of the University of Kansas in Lawrence, believes that Neandertal speech and language ability was equivalent to modern humans. He compared the bending in the base, or basicranium, in Neandertal skull and modern human skulls. The four Neandertal basicraniums used in his study all resembled modern human skulls dating from 25,000 B.C. to mediaeval times (Bower 1992).

In contrast, Philip Lieberman still believes that Neandertals were incapable of producing proper unnasalized speech, and could not pronounce such vowels as a, i, and u, or velar consonants as k and g, all of which are almost universal in human speech (Lieberman 1992). He based his evidence on the fact that Neandertals tongues are largely contained within the oral cavity, which would have prevented them from accomplishing the sudden changes in the supra laryngeal airway shape that are necessary for producing the above consonance and vowels (Lieberman 1992). The nasal cavities also would not be sealed off from the airway, causing a nasualar sound when speaking. Due to these functions, Lieberman believes Neandertals did not posses modern speech.

This is what Lieberman's model looks like. Drawn by Diane Salles, in Ian Tattersall's, The Last Neandertal, one can see the similarities and differences that exist between Homo sapien sapien and Neandertal vocal paths. Click on the image for a larger view

Artistic evidence suggest something different. With the recent discovery of the flute and other artifacts, it has been theorized that Neandertals must have possessed the ability to verbally communicate. According to Alexander Marshack, the existing art work holds symbolic factors. It is possible that Neandertals had to explain these manifestations to their kin groups with oral words. Also, in studying their form hunting, they must have made some sort of spoken communication so that they would know which way to proceed with the hunt.

Links on Neandertal Speech

When Were the First Words?

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