Neanderthals are often portrayed as grunting creatures – but our closest ancestor actually had the ability to perceive and produce speech, a study has shown.
The research, based on fossil remains, also offered hints on what Neanderthal speech sounded like, with an increased use of consonants compared to the languages we speak today.
High-resolution CT (computerised tomography) scans of ear structures from Neanderthal fossils were compared to humans and earlier fossils of Neanderthal ancestors.
Data from the 3D model was used to calculate the hearing range of Neanderthals compared to humans and their own ancestors – and found that Neanderthals had better hearing at the 4-5kHz range, like modern humans.
The research was published in Nature.
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Rolf Quam, associate professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, said: "This is one of the most important studies I have been involved in during my career.
"The results are solid and clearly show the Neanderthals had the capacity to perceive and produce human speech.
"This is one of the very few current, ongoing research lines relying on fossil evidence to study the evolution of language, a notoriously tricky subject in anthropology."
The researchers entered data on the 3D models into a software-based model that estimates hearing abilities up to 5kHz – the frequency range of modern human speech sounds.
They compared human and Neanderthal ear structures with structures from earlier remains unearthed at Atapuerca in northern Spain.
The scientists were able to calculate the frequency range of maximum sensitivity, technically known as the occupied bandwidth, in each species.
A wider bandwidth allows for a larger number of easily distinguishable acoustic signals to be used in the oral communication of a species.
The Neanderthals showed a wider bandwidth compared with their ancestors from Atapuerca, more closely resembling modern humans.
Mercedes Conde-Valverde, professor at the Universidad de Alcala in Spain and lead author of the study, said: "The presence of similar hearing abilities, particularly the bandwidth, demonstrates that the Neanderthals possessed a communication system that was as complex and efficient as modern human speech."
The research also offered intriguing hints about what Neanderthal speech might have sounded like.
Quam said: "One of the other interesting results from the study was the suggestion that Neanderthal speech likely included an increased use of consonants.
“Most previous studies of Neanderthal speech capacities focused on their ability to produce the main vowels in English spoken language.
"However, we feel this emphasis is misplaced, since the use of consonants is a way to include more information in the vocal signal and it also separates human speech and language from the communication patterns in nearly all other primates.
“The fact that our study picked up on this is a really interesting aspect of the research and is a novel suggestion regarding the linguistic capacities in our fossil ancestors."
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