Did the average Neanderthal know she had a brother-in-law?

In an interview with The Houston Chronicle, paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin hits on an interesting point that I don't think we (the media and laypeople) consider enough when we talk about our closest ancient relatives. Although we have an increasingly deep picture of Neanderthal anatomy and genetics, that doesn't necessarily tell us a great deal about their biology.

Truth is, for how little we understand the wiring and functioning of our own brains, we understand even less about the Neanderthal mind. It's quite possible that they could mate with us, but couldn't think the same way we do. And it's those unseen, unstudied differences that could really account for the vast disparities that we see between how humans lived and how their Neanderthal neighbors lived.

The picture we have so far is that the Neanderthals are sort of opportunistic, good at hunting middle- to large-sized mammals. They have a territory in which they probably go through a cycle of habitation in different places, basically when one place is exhausted they move to another one. What we don't see with Neanderthals is long-distance exchanges with other groups. What we see with modern humans in the same areas is different. For example, we find shells in Germany coming from the Mediterranean or from the French Atlantic Coast. It means there was a network of people. So, the question is, what kind of relationship did a Neanderthal have with his brother-in-law? Humans did not just live with their families and their neighbors, but they knew they had a brother-in-law in another village, and that beyond the mountain there is the family of their mother, or uncle, or something like that.

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Art and science: "Your Inner Neanderthal"

If you're in the Twin Cities area on Saturday, April 28th, I recommend going to check out artist and science geek Lynn Fellman talk about the Neanderthal contribution to the modern human genome, and how art can help people understand complicated science. "Your Inner Neanderthal" is part of the Hennepin County Library's DNA Days events. It's free, but you need to register. Read the rest

Did Neanderthals speak with a high-pitched voice?

Neanderthals had different bodies than we do. In general, they were stockier and shorter, for instance. And there were other physical differences, as well. It's hard to say what these differences meant in practice but it's fun to speculate. You could build up a pretty good about how those short, study bodies might have helped Neanderthals be better adapted to cold. Or, you could look at the shape of a male Neanderthal's voice box, and think about how that shape might affect the sounds that came out.

So that's what this video is about. I have no idea how widely accepted "high pitched voice theory" is. I couldn't find a lot of references to it outside of the BBC special this clip comes from. Here's what the BBC says:

Professor Bob Franciscus, from Iowa University, is part of a multi-national group attempting to do just that. By making scans of modern humans, he saw how the soft tissue of the vocal tracts depends on the position of the hyoid bone and the anchoring sites on the skull. Computer predictions were then be made to determine the shape of the modern human vocal tract from bone data alone. The same equations were then used with data from a Neanderthal skull to predict the shape of a Neanderthal vocal tract.

The Neanderthal vocal tract seems to have been shorter and wider than a modern male human's, closer to that found today in modern human females. It's possible, then, that Neanderthal males had higher pitched voices than we might have expected.

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