Photo credit: Erich Ferdinand licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

CNN and other media sources reported on a study published in Nature that Neanderthals could probably vocalize the same sounds and hear just as well as we modern humans do.

I don’t follow this branch of anthropology or human evolution, but my understanding based on reading the Nature abstract and the CNN report is that some authorities thought Neanderthals only were able to grunt. Detailed analyses of Neanderthal remains, however, indicates that they had the same voice and ear structures that we do. The conclusion is that Neanderthals were able to make complex sounds, and to hear them.

Obviously, there can be no experimental confirmation of these conclusions.

One thing I’m pretty sure of, though–although again there can obviously be no experimental confirmation–is that whatever Neanderthals heard, the ambient noise levels were much quieter than those we experience today.

It isn’t known if Neanderthals used drums or made sounds by banging two sticks together. But in nature loud noise is limited to a few sources–thunderstorms, waterfalls, landslides, avalanches, gatherings of birds, and animal cries. In Neanderthal times, approximately 130,000 to 40,000 years ago, there were no automobiles, airplanes, or trains. There was no electricity, and there were no amplifiers or personal listening devices.

The National Park Service has calculated that without human (anthropogenic) sounds, nature is very quiet, with ambient noise levels in the 20-30 A-weighted decibel range. Much of that noise was caused by branches and leaves blowing in the wind, with grassy or desert areas being quieter.

Well-preserved hearing would have been necessary for finding food and for avoiding danger. Those with bad hearing wouldn’t have lived long. Fortunately, noise-induced hearing loss probably wasn’t a major problem for Neanderthals.