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Talk Anthropology to Me

Can you fathom a time when we, Homo sapiens, were roaming the earth with our fellow hominins, the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis)? It may be difficult to conjure up, but history tells us we coexisted for tens of thousands of years before Neanderthals fell to extinction 40,000 years ago. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences proposes that we not only coexisted with the Neanderthals, but we may have shared the same sensitivity to sound as they did. Alexander Stoessel and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany suggest Neanderthal and modern human middle ear anatomy appears to have functioned in the same way.

To uncover this finding, the researchers used 3D imaging to reconstruct the middle ear of Neanderthals by honing in on its three most prominent bones, or ossicles: the malleus, incus, and stapes. Researchers then compared the shape of the Neanderthal ossicles to that of African apes and anatomically modern humans (AMH).  A study design such as this was nearly impossible to conduct in the past, firstly because few Neanderthal ossicles have ever been discovered. Secondly, ossicles are the smallest bones in the human body, making them difficult to handle and their shape difficult to resolve. Stoessel and colleagues’ research presents the largest sample size of Neanderthal ossicles to date, with 22 ossicles from 14 individuals. More so, the ossicles cover a wide geographic region, spanning France, Germany, Israel, and Croatia.  

Because the size of the brain evolved separately in AMHs and Neanderthals, the spatial relationship of the ossicles within the tympanic cavity of the middle ear is different between the two species. Specifically, ossicles lie at a distinct angle within the Neanderthal middle ear, as compared to us AMHs. Although spatially different, the functional properties of the middle ear are equivalent between us, indicating that the middle ear underwent selective pressure to conserve auditory sensitivity that was inherited from the last common ancestor of AMHs and Neanderthals. 

Additionally, the findings indicate similarities between vocal communication in AMHs and in Neanderthals, suggesting Neanderthals may have been 

able to speak.

This finding can turn our thinking about Neanderthals on its head,” says Dr. Lisa Rapaport, an Assistant Professor and Behavioral Ecologist in Clemson’s Biological Sciences Department. Her background is in anthropology, with her research emphasizing primatology. She explains that our view of Neanderthals is one of the “primitive, bumbling brute – something less than us, trying to be us but too dim-witted to ever have won the evolutionary race.” Stoessel and colleagues’ 

findings have given us another piece of evidence that the Neanderthals were more sophisticated than we, AMHs, give them credit for. 

So, did the Neanderthals have language? 

“This research indicates probably yes, so it puts us one step closer to answering that age-old question,” says Dr. Rapaport. 

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