The Singing Neandertal

2 minute read

Is it just me, or does this remind anyone of "The Dancing Cavalier" from Singin' in the Rain?

ABC News has an item (March 15, 2005) called "Neanderthals sang like sopranos". The report is referencing a research presentation at University College London by Stephen Mithen, and it says he is making the argument the centerpiece of a book expected later this year, titled The Singing Neanderthal: The Origin of Language, Music, Body and Mind.

Here are some central quotes:

Neanderthals had strong, yet high-pitched, voices that the stocky hominins used for both singing and speaking, says a UK researcher.
Mithen compared related skeletal Neanderthal data with that of monkeys and other members of the ape family, including modern humans. In a recent University College London seminar, Mithen explained that Neanderthal anatomy suggests the early hominins had the physical ability to communicate with pitch and melody. He believes they probably used these abilities in a form of communication that was half spoken and half sung.

At first glace, this seems remarkably similar to work I heard presented at the AAPA meetings last year by Margaret Clegg
(University College London). Here is a quote from the abstract (Clegg 2004:76):

Evidence is presented in this paper to suggest that the reversal proposed in the Neanderthals may be a consequence of the sex used to model the vocal tract. There has been a concentration on male vocal anatomy in the research so far undertaken. However, human males have a large secondary growth in both laryngeal size and position. This secondary growth appears to have little to do with the ability to produce speech sounds. Furthermore, we have no way of knowing when this secondary growth spurt evolved. It is plausible that this growth spurt was not found in Neanderthal males. The use of the human male as the standard model for human vocal tracts may therefore be responsible for the apparent reversal in laryngeal position found in Neanderthals.

She made the argument in her talk that Neandertals would have likely had high, feminine-sounding voices because of their high laryngeal position. To me, this sounds like exactly the same thing Mithen is basing his argument on.

In an entirely unrelated point of interest, later in the article Jeffrey Laitman gives his idea of what killed the Neandertals:

Laitman believes Neanderthals were a separate species that modern humans actually helped to kill off.
"Their ear, nose, and throat anatomy would have made them very susceptible to respiratory infections and to middle ear infections," he says.
"We know they traded and were in contact with modern humans, so Neanderthals would have been in harm's way for germs.
"In the days before cures like penicillin, illness could have flown through their populations very quickly and contributed to their demise."


Clegg M. 2004. A new model for the Neanderthal vocal tract. Am J Phys Anthropol 123(Supp 38):76.