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Last Updated: Friday, 25 June, 2004, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
Bones point to origins of speech
Homo antecessor (L) and his possible descendant Homo heidelbergensis (R)

New research suggests humans may have been able to talk much longer ago than previously thought, the Spanish media has reported.

The claim is based on ear bones from skulls found in the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones) at Atapuerca, northern Spain, in the early 1990s.

They are said to belong to Homo heidelbergensis, who lived some 350,000 years ago and is thought to have been an ancestor of the Neanderthals.

Some scientists believe humans only acquired the ability to speak about 160,000 years ago.

The Spanish study's main author, Ignacio Martinez, stressed its importance, in statements quoted by the Madrid daily El Pais

"It is very significant because this is the first time a sensory ability has been accurately detected in a fossil species," he said.

There is a close link between the sounds a species can hear and those it can produce, Dr Martinez added.

"The discovery that those humans from so long ago could hear like us is a solid argument in favour of the theory that they were also able to speak," he said.


The story began three years ago when the team reached a "dead end" trying to rebuild H. heidelbergensis' voice box, according to El Pais.

The team - led by Juan Luis Arsuaga - began instead to study tiny ear bones from skulls found in the Sima de los Huesos.

"We carried out a 3D study... of five of the skulls and managed to rebuild the inner and middle ear," Dr Arsuaga told the newspaper.

H. heidelbergensis' hearing was similar to our own, according to the analysis, published in the journal Proceedings of the USA's National Academy of Sciences.

"Human hearing differs from that of chimpanzees... in maintaining a relatively high sensitivity from 2-4kHz, a region that contains relevant acoustic information in spoken language," wrote the team.

H. heidelbergensis had "a human-like pattern" of sound power transmission through the outer and middle ear at frequencies between 3 and 5kHz, they added.

This contrasts with our nearest living relatives, chimpanzees, which pick up sounds peaking at around 1 or 8kHz - outside the normal range of human language

Shared ancestor

The Spanish researchers believe H. heidelbergensis was an ancestor of the Neanderthals but not of modern humans.

Researchers at work in Atapuerca
Researchers at work in Atapuerca

They think his advanced hearing - and our own - may have evolved from the last ancestor we share with the Neanderthals.

This would mean the origins of language could date back much further, Spanish television reported.

Dr Arsuaga and his team have - controversially - identified this ancestor as Homo antecessor, remains of which were found at another site in Atapuerca and date back 800,000 years.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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