Neandertals Speak Out

April 24, 2008

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We all have famous voices stored in our memory. Any reference to the owners of the voice will trigger a recording being played in our mind. Think Darth Vader, James Earl Jones, or your parents…

Fairly soon, there might be another voice added to that repertoire stuck in our brain and it comes to us from 30,000 years ago. It is the sound a Neandertal would have made. No, archaeologists did not come across a well preserved and very old wax cylinder in a remote cave somewhere in Southern France. It is something even more cutting edge.

The oldest recording of a human voice dates back to on April 9, 1860 and was made on a phonautograph, a device created by a Parisian inventor, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville. You can listen to that clip, pre-dating Thomas Edison’s famous recording of “Mary had a little lamb” by seventeen years.

Scientists have always been intrigued about when modern speech developed and have tried various approaches to substantiate the presence of such linguistic ability. The ability to vocalize (and ultimately speak like us) is one of several traits that make us humans stand apart from non-human animals. The challenge remains: how can we reconstruct speech among our distant ancestors? As it turns out, there are several ways of pursuing this.


Among these approaches are reconstructing the voice box of our ancestors, to see if they would have been able to expel the same amount of air as modern humans and therefore would have been able to speak like us. An extremely fragile bone, known as the hyoid. It has multiple functions, among them: supporting the tongue and serving as an attachment point for several muscles that help to elevate the larynx during swallowing and speech. As most murder mystery fans already know, medical examiners always look at this bone to find evidence of strangulation.

We also have a good understanding of which part of the modern human brain controls speech. Take, for example, Broca’s area, one of the regions in the modern brain linked to our ability to speak. In very rare cases, endocasts of early hominid brains are preserved. By looking at the same regions of these fossilized brain casts, scientists can make suggestions about past speech abilities.


With breakthroughs in genomic studies, we have come to understand some of the genetic markers that control speech in modern humans. DNA extracted from earlier hominids has been checked for the presence of these markers and assertions follow about the linguistic abilities of these earlier humans.

Most recently, we also have attempts to reconstruct what ancient speech sounded like. Thus far, only a handful of such fossil hyoid bones have been retrieved from archaeological context, including one from a Neanderthal, one from a baby Australopithecus, and two from Homo antecessor in Spain.

Curious then what a Neandertal person sounded like? Listen yourself and find out how they got to this reconstruction.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

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