This Is Probably What Neanderthals Sounded Like

Whenever Neanderthals turn up in pop culture, they tend to either make grunting ape sounds, use halting English in guttural voices, or spice up their sentences with phrases like "Yabba dabba doo." But multiple studies into their actual anatomy suggests all three of those ideas might be completely wrong.

More Like Nea-whine-derthal

In the BBC's 2005 documentary "Neanderthal: The Rebirth," a group of researchers studying preserved Neanderthal throats and vocal organs contracted vocal coach Patsy Rodenburg and a very enthusiastic reenactor named Elliot to reproduce the kinds of sounds that the ancient hominids would have been able to create. The results were ... startling.

Key Facts In This Video

  1. The throat of a Neanderthal is shorter than that of a human, meaning a Neanderthal voice was likely higher. 00:16

  2. Neanderthals' voices would have been affected by their deep rib cages and large nasal cavities. 00:45

  3. This is what a Neanderthal may have sounded like: 01:51

Good work, Elliot. Because of the Neanderthal's short vocal tract, its voice would be much higher pitched than a modern human's. It also had a very large nasal cavity, lending it a certain Gilbert Gottfried-esque quality. And finally, the Neanderthals' broad chests and thick, resonant skulls would give them the simple dynamic capability to speak loudly, even louder, or deafeningly loud. No need for an inside voice — there wasn't an "inside" yet.

Talking Man-to-Caveman

The BBC isn't the only group that's interested in caveman conversations. Biologist Robert McCarthy has done extensive work on the subject, and his findings are consistent with the conclusion that Neanderthals were capable of language. The key ingredient is the hyoid bone, which provides a solid anchor for the tongue and is present in Neanderthal fossils. That means that our distant cousins may have been as linguistically dextrous as we are (or at least in the same ballpark). And if you think that Elliot up there is the only one simulating Neanderthal sounds, think again: McCarthy's got his own computer simulation of a single caveman syllable.

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We're learning more about neanderthals every day, and the proof is in Dimitra Papagianni's "The Neanderthals Rediscovered." The audiobook is free on Audible with a trial membership. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas January 14, 2018

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