A story in Science News by writer Tia Ghose, about the hearing capacities of the Atapuerca/Sima de los Huesos people, has been making the rounds, including Slashdot. I’ve been working on this question of hearing evolution (and my AAPA paper this spring was on the subject), so I don’t have a lot to say. But if you’ve never heard about this before, the original study by Ignacio Martínez and colleagues, has been out since 2004.
The results are quite clear: the Atapuerca middle ears (including the ossicles and shape of the canal) have a sound transmission potential that is maximal in the frequency range used by human speech, a range that chimpanzee middle ears do not amplify well. That seems pretty likely to indicate co-evolution of human auditory and vocal capabilities in the time before 500,000 years ago. Does that mean language? It certainly seems likely to mean some kind of vocal communication not shared with other hominoids, but that need not include every element of present-day human language.
Why is it news now? I suppose it’s probably because Martínez et al. recently presented their research at the Acoustic Society of America. another paper on the research, in the Journal of the Acoustic Society of America. The abstract is available online.