History Files


Prehistoric World

In the Beginning was the Vowel

BBC News, 8 August 2001




Humans were able to talk 300,000 years ago, new research has shown.

Pre-Neanderthals who lived in northern Spain could utter basic vowel sounds, say researchers working at the Atapuerca archaeological site in Burgos Province.

They had voice boxes at an evolutionary stage between chimpanzees and modern humans.

It is the first time fossil evidence for this has been found, the Spanish daily La Razon said.

The findings are based on studies of a complete skull found in the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones) in Atapuerca in 1992 among the remains of over thirty other people.

They were announced at a news conference by the co-director of the Atapuerca excavations, Juan Luis Arsuaga, and fellow palaeontologist Ignacio Martinez.

"For the first time, we can say that an anatomically intermediate situation between the chimpanzee and Man existed on the planet - not only anatomical but also functional", said Martinez.


"That means that Man could talk 300,000 years ago, albeit not in the way we do", he went on.

The now famous skull, Atapuerca 5, belongs to a member of the species Homo heidelbergensis, which scientists usually accept was the last common ancestor of the Neanderthals and today's humans.


Homo heidelbergensis could pronounce some basic vowel sounds - "aa", "ee" and "oo" - but not well enough to hold any kind of conversation.

The sounds would have been slow and slurred due to the dimensions of the mouth and pharynx, the Spanish researchers say.

For Arsuaga, the evidence of a semi-developed voice box reinforces the idea that "the evolution of human intelligence also occurred in a progressive manner," and not spontaneously, as many scientists have hitherto maintained.



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