In the museum dioramas that instruct our collective imagination, the Neanderthals are big, hairy and mute. Well, if not mute, grunting. (Actually, I’m thinking of Rae Dawn Chong running circles around those hapless furwearers in Quest for Fire )
Okay, none of these guys would have made it into Harvard other than as legacies, but they were no slouches either, bringing home the Eohippus bacon every day back when tooth and claw really meant tooth and claw.
Robert McCarthy, an anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, has used new reconstructions of Neanderthal vocal tracts to simulate the voice with a computer synthesizer. The size and shape of the Neanderthal larynx was inferred by a series of skull measurements.
“They would have spoken a bit differently. They wouldn’t have been able to produce these quantal vowels that form the basis of spoken language,” he says. So back to grunts? I guess it would depend on the language they spoke.
A link to the simulation (just an “ee” sound for now) is provided but I haven’t been able to get it to play properly. McCarthy will be doing more work generating more sounds later.
The archaeological records suggests that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon interacted, or at least existed in the same place at the same time, and that among the Neanderthal there were three distinct sub populations among them.
Did these sub populations talk to each other? Were there linguistic specialists among those populations who managed cross-species communication, i.e., cave man interpreters? The way language has emerged among Homo Sapiens suggests that interpreters emerged quite early in human prehistory. While there is strong evidence for cultural interaction between Neanderthal and humans, evidence for cross breeding is much more controversial. Does this mean that translation is not the second-oldest profession?