Looking Back…

In case you were wondering about notable science events that occurred the week of July 4th…

ET christmas 2004
Creative Commons License photo credit: Lathyrus

Ready for the clone wars? On July 5th, 1996, Dolly the sheep was born. Dolly was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell. Dolly lived her entire life at the Roslin Institute in Scotland. She had six lambs of her own, and lived to the age of six.

ET phone home… On July 6th, 2003, a message was sent out to five different stars. The message, Cosmic Call 2, was broadcasted from Eupatoria, a 70-meter radar. The message was sent to the stars Hip 4872, HD 245409, 55 Cancri, HD 10307, and 47 Ursae Majoris. The message should reach its destination in 2036, 2040, 2044, 2044, and 2049 respectively. Talk about your long distance phone calls.

Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. On July 10, 1925, in Dayton, Tennessee, the Scopes Trial began. John T. Scopes, a high school teacher, was accused of teaching evolution in the classroom in violation of Tennessee law.

Raw DNA Image
Creative Commons License photo credit: MASH DnArt

The law, which passed in January of 1925, stated that it was illegal for anyone to teach anything but the story of Divine Creation of man. After an eight day trial, Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution and fined 100 dollars (approximately 1,165 dollars in today’s currency.)

On July 10, 1997, London scientists report their DNA analysis of a Neandertal skeleton, nicknamed African Eve, found in modern day Ethiopia. The results place her life at roughly 140,000 years ago, which supports the Out of Africa Theory. This theory states that all our ancestors originally came from Africa. An alternative theory is the Multiregional Origin Theory, which states that our ancestors developed independantly in different regions of the world.

Neandertals Speak Out

Creative Commons License photo credit:

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.