Neanderthals had strong, yet high-pitched, voices that the stocky hominins used for both singing and speaking, says a UK researcher.The theory suggests that Neanderthals, who once lived in Europe from around 200,000 to 35,000 BC, were intelligent and socially complex.
It also indicates that although Neanderthals were likely to have represented a unique species, they had more in common with modern humans than previously thought.
Stephen Mithen, a professor of archaeology at the University of Reading, made the determination after studying the skeletal remains of Neanderthals.
His work coincides with last week's release of the first complete, articulated Neanderthal skeleton.
Information about the new skeleton is published in the current issue of the journal The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist.
Mithen compared related skeletal Neanderthal data with that of monkeys and other members of the ape family, including modern humans.
In a recent University College London seminar, Mithen explained that Neanderthal anatomy suggests the early hominins had the physical ability to communicate with pitch and melody.
He believes they probably used these abilities in a form of communication that was half spoken and half sung.
Mithen says he hopes people who are interested in his research will read his upcoming book The singing Neanderthal: the origin of language, music, body and mind, which will be published in June.
A head and neck for singing?
Jeffrey Laitman is professor and director of anatomy and functional morphology, as well as otolaryngology, the study of the ear, nose, and throats, at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
He is also an expert on Neanderthals, particularly in terms of analysing their head and neck regions.
"My curiosity is peaked by Mithen's theory that Neanderthals sang and had feminine-toned voices. But I think these attributes would be difficult to prove even with the recent Neanderthal reconstruction," Laitman says.
"No Neanderthal larynx exists because the tissue does not fossilise. We have to reconstruct it."
Laitman says he and other researchers often use existing portions of Neanderthal, and other early hominin skulls to build the voice box area.
Through such work, he has learned that Neanderthals, Australopithecines and other prehistoric hominins had a larynx positioned high in the throat.
"The structure is comparable to what we see in monkeys and apes today," Laitman says. "Apes do have language and culture, but the sounds they make are more limited than those produced by humans."
Due to the Neanderthal's impressive brain size, which was larger than the grey matter of most modern humans, Laitman emphatically believes they had linguistic abilities.
"They were not mute brutes just because they were not exactly like us," he says. "Neanderthals probably made different sounds because, in part, they could not have used all of the vowels we do. For example, they could not have said 'ooh', 'ahh' or 'eee'."
Since Neanderthals had distinctive nasal, ear and sinus anatomical features, Laitman believes they were specialised for respiration, which would have given them a 'nasally' voice.
It is unclear why the larynx of modern humans dropped lower in the throat around a million and a half years ago.
Laitman thinks the change might have been linked to desired extra air intake through the mouth for short-burst running.
A sing-song debate
Associate Professor Janet Monge, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and another Neanderthal expert, is sceptical about the new singing Neanderthal theory.
"[But] if we sing, then I am sure that all very modern looking ancient humans could too," she says.
She says that language and singing do not use the same neurosubstrates, so she questions how a link could be made between the two, especially since in humans, language can be melodious and high-pitched without literally moving into full song.
But Monge adds, "Certainly linking language to Neanderthals makes them more like modern humans."
Laitman believes Neanderthals were a separate species that modern humans actually helped to kill off.
"Their ear, nose, and throat anatomy would have made them very susceptible to respiratory infections and to middle ear infections," he says.
"We know they traded and were in contact with modern humans, so Neanderthals would have been in harm's way for germs.
"In the days before cures like penicillin, illness could have flown through their populations very quickly and contributed to their demise."