Monday, March 14, 2005

Neanderthals Sang at High Pitch?

Neanderthal Alto Skull

Neanderthals possessed strong, yet high-pitched, voices that the stocky hominins used for both singing and speaking, according to recent British news reports.

The theory suggests that Neanderthals, who once lived in Europe from around 200,000 to 35,000 B.C., were intelligent and socially complex. It also indicates that although Neanderthals likely represented a unique species, they had more in common with modern humans than previously thought.

Stephen Mithen, a professor of archaeology at Reading University, 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 utilized these abilities in a form of communication that was half spoken and half sung.

Mithen told Discovery News that he was "pleased" by the recent media attention, but 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.

Jeffrey Laitman, professor and director of anatomy and functional morphology, as well as otolaryngology (the study of the ear, nose, and throat) at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is a leading expert on Neanderthals, particularly in terms of analyzing 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 told Discovery News.

He explained, "No Neanderthal larynx exists because the tissue does not fossilize. We have to reconstruct it."

Laitman said 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 possessed larynxes that were positioned high in the throat.

"The structure is comparable to what we see in monkeys and apes today," Laitman said. "Apes do have language and culture, but the sounds they make are more limited than those produced by humans."

Story here.

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