July 13, 2012

Homo heidelbergensis spoke fluently

That is the conclusion of the Atapuerca researchers based on the structure of the hyoid bone, a critical part of our sound managing anatomy.


The present study presents new data on the abilities of Homo heidelbergensis to produce and perceive the sounds emitted during modern human spoken language. The pattern of sound power transmission was studied through the outer and middle ears in five individuals from the Sima de los Huesos, four chimpanzees and four modern humans. The results were then used to calculate the occupied bandwidth of the outer and middle ears, an important variable related with communicative capacities. The results demonstrate that the Atapuerca SH hominins were similar to modern humans in this aspect, falling within the lower half of the range of variation, and clearly distinct from chimpanzees. Specifically, the Atapuerca SH hominins show a bandwidth that is slightly displaced and considerably extended to encompass the frequencies that contain relevant acoustic information in human speech, permitting the transmission of a larger amount of information with fewer errors. At the same time, the presence of a complete cervical segment of the spinal column associated with Cranium 5 from the Sima de los Huesos middle Pleistocene site (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain) makes it possible to estimate the vocal tract proportions in Homo heidelbergensis for the first time. The results demonstrate that it is similar to the reconstructed vocal tract in the La Ferrassie 1 Neandertal individual, which has been suggested to have been capable of producing the full range of sounds emitted during modern human spoken language. These results in the Atapuerca (SH) hominins are consistent with other recent suggestions for an ancient origin for human speech capacity.

Reconstruction of Miguelón, a H. heidelbergensis from Atapuerca, who, according to Manuel Ansede[es], died cursing his luck and the pain caused by the dental infection that killed him

Source: Pileta de Prehistoria[es].


  1. this was one of the first approaches:

    1. Ah, you are behind that reconstruction? It's a cool one. Gratz.

    2. to be true, this series of 41 MRCA reconstructions were not meant to be realistic proposals, but I intended with the restriction of all heads bald to gather a collection of skulls as containers for eyeballs. It is really astonishing for me to sometimes see, that my wild interpretations are not that far away from the versions of professional serious reconstructors.

    3. "skulls as containers for eyeballs"...

      That's a curious idea.

      Whatever the case I feel that your reconstructions, even if somewhat excessive in "free strokes" (i.e. "artistic", "intuitive"), are pretty good.

      The big issue with reconstructions seems to be face traits, because the exact apportion of flesh and cartilage, never mind very important secondary traits like epicanthic fold or lip thickness and color, varies somewhat. Some of these traits a forensic artist may be able to reconstruct at least to an average but some others, notably "racial" traits, are quite opinable.

    4. I think you did a stellar job compared to the average! The only thing I find gratuitous is the body hair - I find myself gravitated to the no eyebrow thing myself as well - but, at least yours looks like you've given them the respectability of having some of the esthetics of current humans! Maybe someday we'll even be able to model one that isn't weathered or grumpy looking, having their hair in a birds nest; and in prime reproductive age, and is actually beautiful.

    5. omitting all hair was a conceptional decision before that series. After some preliminary sketchings I saw, that it is far TOO easy to turn a head with kontingent things like hair into something really different - and I wanted just fair conditions for all skulls. Within limitations you can feel more focused on what is left.

  2. Replies
    1. The post is quite humble: only a few sentences are my work. I think that your enthusiasm in this regard is a bit misplaced. Thanks anyhow.

      However the discovery is quite interesting indeed.

  3. Interesting paper, but with the usual logical fallacies: that we still have archaic-Homo-like acoustic properties (not unexpected, of course: we descend from people like them) doesn't mean they spoke fluently, nor that they did not speak fluently, or at all.
    Our speech capacities are a combination of early hominoid duetting (gibbon song) + voluntary breath-holding (diving for seafood) + seafood consumption (labial, dental, velar etc clicks & consonants) + large brains (DHA etc in seafood): not unexpected when Pleistocene Homo dispersed along the coasts as far as Flores, Pakefield & Tafelbaai.
    For speech origins, google, eg, verhaegen speech song.

    1. @Marc,

      I'm no expert, but think that speech almost certainly began in Hunters trying to imitate bird and animal calls - either mating or need for help - as a way to lure them into a trap or ambush them.

      As a kid, I would stand behind a tree or hedge and could imitate the sound of a calf that needed help, and get cows to run towards me. Same with sheep.

      Children learn language by imitating too.


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