New Worlds: Did Neanderthals talk? Bone found in Zichron Ya’acov provides new answers

60,000-year-old horseshoe-shaped bone of a Neanderthal man found in Israel in 1989 is changing views about the speech abilities of extinct human species.

Neanderthal exhibit 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Nikola Solic)
Neanderthal exhibit 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Nikola Solic)
A 60,000-year-old horseshoe-shaped bone of a Neanderthal man that was found in Israel in 1989 is changing views about the speech abilities of this extinct human species closely related to modern humans.
The hyoid (lingual) bone located between the chin and the neck aids in tongue movement and swallowing.
“We humans like to think of ourselves as unique for many reasons, not least of which being our ability to communicate with words,” said Prof. Stephen Wroe, a zoologist and paleontologist at the University of New England in Australia.
“However, this bone shows that our ‘misunderstood cousins,’ the Neanderthals, may well have spoken in languages not dissimilar to the ones we use today.”
The team used 3D x-ray imaging technology to make a revolutionary discovery challenging this notion that other beings, including the Neanderthals with whom our ancestors shared the Earth for thousands of years, simply lacked the necessary cognitive capacity and vocal hardware for speech.
The bone was found at the Kebara Cave on a steep slope west of the Carmel Range in the Ramat Hanadiv preserve at Zichron Ya’acov. It was originally excavated under the direction of Prof. Ofer Bar-Yosef. Dorothy Garrod and Francis Turville-Petre in the early 1930s. However, the well-preserved Neanderthal skeleton nicknamed “Moshe” was found more than 50 years later – with a large part of its vertebral column, ribs, pelvis and hyoid intact. The cranium and most of the lower limbs were missing. It was the first Neanderthal hyoid bone ever found.
“To many, the Neanderthal hyoid discovered was surprising because its shape was very different to that of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. However, it was virtually indistinguishable from that of our own species. This led to some people arguing that this Neanderthal could speak,” Wroe said.
“The obvious counterargument to this assertion was that the fact that hyoids of Neanderthals were the same shape as modern humans doesn’t necessarily mean that they were used in the same way. With the technology of the time, it was hard to verify the argument one way or the other, but advances in 3D imaging and computer modelling allowed the team to revisit the question.
“By analyzing the mechanical behavior of the fossilized bone with micro x-ray imaging, we were able to build models of the hyoid that included the intricate internal structure of the bone. We then compared them to models of modern humans. Our comparisons showed that in terms of mechanical behavior, the Neanderthal hyoid was basically indistinguishable from our own, strongly suggesting that this key part of the vocal tract was used in the same way. “From this research, we can conclude that it’s likely that the origins of speech and language are far, far older than once thought,” he concluded.
WAKE UP WITH BLUE LIGHT If you’re tired and suffer from the lack of alertness during the day, you may need to be exposed to blue light.
Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have found that exposure to short wavelength – or blue light – during the day directly and immediately improves alertness and performance. Publishing their findings in a recent issue of the journal Sleep, the team noted that their previous research found that blue light is able to improve alertness during the night. “But our new data demonstrates that these effects also extend to daytime light exposure,” said Dr. Shadab Rahman, a sleep medicine researcher. “These findings demonstrate that prolonged blue light exposure during the day has an alerting effect.”
To determine which wavelengths of light were most effective in warding off fatigue, the Boston researchers teamed with neurology Prof. George Brainard at Thomas Jefferson University, who developed the specialized light equipment used in the study. Researchers compared the effects of blue light with exposure to an equal amount of green light on alertness and performance in 16 study participants for six-and-a-half hours within 24 hours. Participants then rated how sleepy they felt, had their reaction times measured and wore electrodes to assess changes in brain activity patterns during the light exposure.
The researchers found that participants exposed to blue light consistently rated themselves as less sleepy, had quicker reaction times and fewer lapses of attention during the performance tests compared to those who were exposed to green light. They also showed changes in brain activity patterns that indicated a more alert state.
“These results contribute to our understanding of how light impacts the brain and open up a new range of possibilities for using light to improve human alertness, productivity and safety,” explained Dr. Steven Lockley, the senior investigator. “While helping to improve alertness in night workers has obvious safety benefits, day shift workers may also benefit from better quality lighting that would not only help them see better but also make them more alert.”
Researchers note that the next big challenge is to figure out how to deliver better lighting. While natural light is ideal, many people do not have access to daylight in their schools, homes or work places. The development of new, more controllable lighting technologies may help enable researchers to develop “smart” lighting systems to maximize the beneficial effects of light for human health, productivity and safety.