Human Origins; Neanderthals and Language


Were Homo sapiens the first Hominids to have the ability to communicate with complex speech? It’s an elaborate and difficult question to answer.

The relevance of whether or not Humans were the first to communicate with complex speech is however, a monumental question in our evolutionary history because language is something that separates us from all other species. The academic pieces, “The Evolution of speech: A comparative review,” “On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neanderthal linguistic and its consequences,” and “On the Speech of Neanderthal Man” give insight and valuable information on this topic.

All of these articles were written at different times in a span of 45 years, with the latest one, written in 2013, being the most against the position that Homo sapiens were the first Hominids to communicate with speech.

In the first scientific paper, “The evolution of speech: A comparative review,” by Tecumseh Fitch, it is discussed and shown how key differences in Human vocal tracts, allow to give rise to complex speech and language.

Fitch is trying to solve the puzzle of why humans have developed advanced vocal output while our nearest mammal cousins have not. Fitch points out that the low position of the adult human larynx allows us to produce sounds that have different, highly discriminable, formant patterns with little effort (Fitch 2000 pp. 260) It is this position of the larynx that separates us from our ape cousins in which the larynx is higher. Formants or vocal tract resonances function as band pass filters, taking whatever sound emanates from the larynx and making its spectrum into a series of peaks and valleys (Fitch 2000 pp. 260).

A low Larynx also allows for the tongue to achieve the required freedom of movement needed for complex speech (Fitch 2000 pp. 263). Fitch is adept at using the data of the vocal anatomy of orangutan, chimpanzee and the proposed Neanderthal vocal make up (based on the kebara fossil hyoid) in showing how human vocal anatomy differs and is unique.

However Fitch superbly points out that the hyoid bone provides zero reliable inferences of the position of the Larynx, which we know is so important to human speech (Fitch 2000 pp. 262). This article is not interested in deciphering whether or not our extinct hominid ancestors had developed complex speech or not but it theorized what specific anatomy and evolutionary development has separated Humanity and it laid out specifically what makes our vocal tract unique.

Fitch concludes his paper saying that the future study of the evolution of speech and language in humans should rest on the discovery of the neural ability to imitate sounds and the adaptive significance of this as well as continuing with the comparison of other non-human vocal tracts. It is my thinking that this is the right way to continue along with studying and discovering genes that could play a role in complex speech.

“On the speech of Neanderthal Man,” was written in 1971 and argues based on the evidence of that time, that Neanderthals did not have the physical capacity to produce speech and language. The paper starts off by comparing the skulls of Neanderthal man, Adult human and a newborn human, showing that there were similarities between the newborn and Neanderthal skull.

They reconstructed the supposed vocal tract of Neanderthal man based largely on assumptions and inferences of how the vocal tract would function in our hominid cousin and ran a computer simulation to see the chances of this vocal apparatus being able to produce speech. Important to note, they did lower the Larynx to model more closely to humans to give a better possibility of producing speech. “Our computer simulation thus shows that the supralaryngeal vocal tract of Neanderthal man was inherently incapable of producing the range of sounds that is necessary for the full range of human speech” (Lieberman Crelin pg216).

These scientists say that it is the lacking of an extensive supralaryngeal pharyngeal region “that allows all of the intrinsic and extrinsic pharyngeal musculature to function at a maximum for speech production by changing the shape of the supraloaryngeal vocal tract” [Lieberman Crelin pg217 (Negus 1949)].

My personal favorite article and the one that I found to have the most convincing argument was, “On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neanderthal linguistic capacities and its consequences,” by Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson.

Its conclusion and argument clearly contradict the assessment made by Lieberman and Crelin in “On the Speech of Neanderthal Man,” which was published 42 years earlier. Dediu and Levinson assert that Neanderthal and Denisovan man both had the capacity for recognizable modern language and speech. Although they base their conclusions on data that can be interpreted both ways, I find myself more in agreement with their interpretations.

For example, following the advances in genetics we have recently discovered that Neanderthals and Denisovans have contributed their DNA to modern human lineages. Before this discovery it was assumed that these cousins of Homo sapiens contributed zero or such a low amount of DNA that it made no impact, to human lineages.

If we were able to interbreed its very possible we shared and traded many advanced functions such as speech and language. Following this advancement, we have been able to discover that modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans share a great majority of genes including “the same “human specific” two amino-acid substitutions in FOXP2, the best-known gene hitherto linked to language,” (Dediu Levinson 2013 pg 4).

From these lines of information, the authors argue that Neanderthals and Denisovans had the “basic genetic underpinnings for recognizably modern language and speech, but it is possible that modern humans may out strip them in some parameters” (Dediu Levinson 2013 pg5).

The authors go on to point out recent discoveries of possible Neanderthal culture. They had complex stone tool technology (Dediu Levinson 2013 pg7). “Neanderthals buried their dead” (Dediu Levinson 2013 pg7 {lalueza-Fox et al., 2010}).

Obviously these discoveries have nothing to do with language specifically but it’s justifiable to suggest that these cousins of Homo sapiens could possibly have the ability to speak if they are able to perform those complex activities.

The authors also draw on the fact of the mass diversity of human language families today and the time since the emergence of Homo sapiens may not be sufficient by itself to account for such large diversity. The authors propose that since we know that humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans interacted and interbred, it is not unreasonable to suggest that we may have inherited some aspects of their language, given that they had language, which we now know is not an implausible possibility.


The evolution of Speech and the development of Language was a huge evolutionary cornerstone in our species history. The development of complex speech and language could have possibly been a huge factor in our survival and dominance and the extinction of some of our Hominid cousins and ancestors.

It is clear that we do not know yet whether homo sapiens were the first hominids to communicate using complex speech and language, but the more advancements we have in the genetics and obtaining a more complete view of Neanderthal man, it appears that our hominid cousins were not the apeish simple brutes we once thought them to be.




























Works Cited


  • Lieberman Phillip, Crelin Edmund. “On the Speech of Neanderthal Man.” Linguisitc inquiry, 2 1971 pp. 203-222
  • Dediu Dan, Levinson Stephen. “On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neanderthal linguistic capacities and its consequences.” Frontiers in psychology, Vol. 4 2013 pp. 1-16
  • Fitch Tecumseh. “The evolution of speech: a comparative review.” Review Pp. 258-26766666666666666666j

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