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What Type Of Language Did Neanderthals Speak?

Neanderthal-ese may not have been dissimilar from our own languages.


Ben Taub


Ben Taub

Freelance Writer

Benjamin holds a Master's degree in anthropology from University College London and has worked in the fields of neuroscience research and mental health treatment.

Freelance Writer

Neanderthal language

Neanderthals were capable of making most of the same sounds as modern humans.

Image credit: Ema Emi/

Modern humans and Neanderthals obviously got along well enough to mate with one another, although the level of conversation that preceded these inter-hominid romances remains a matter of great uncertainty. Given that fossils are unable to talk and Neanderthals disappeared long before the invention of recording equipment, archaeologists have no way of knowing whether our extinct cousins possessed sophisticated language skills - although the author of an as-yet unpublished study has had a crack at analyzing Neanderthal lingo.

“Neanderthals almost certainly spoke languages that were quite like our languages, but seemingly less structurally complex and less functionally flexible,” writes study author Antonio Benítez-Burraco, a linguist from the University of Seville. This conclusion is the upshot of a multidisciplinary analysis of the ancient humans’ speech capabilities, combining anatomical, social-cultural, cognitive, environmental, and genetic evidence.


For instance, the author explains that the Neanderthal vocal tract is highly similar to our own, suggesting that they were capable of producing most of the same sounds as us. Likewise, their hearing was akin to that of modern humans, all of which indicates that they possessed the necessary hardware for complex vocal communication.

However, the shape of the Neanderthal skull cavity suggests that their brains were less “globular” than ours, which means the thalamus – a region heavily involved in language processing – may have been less prominent. This, in turn, has led to speculation that Neanderthals were less capable of “cross-modal thinking” and therefore lacked our ability to create complex linguistic structures by combining different concepts.

Furthermore, the relative simplicity of Neanderthal tools suggests that they did not share our capacity for “hierarchical thinking”, and may therefore have been incapable of building complicated phrases or sentences. Additionally, the lack of cultural adaptation seen in Neanderthal industries over time may reflect an inability to innovate due to “less powerful working memory resources.”

According to Benítez-Burraco, all of these cognitive restrictions are likely to have limited Neanderthals’ linguistic capabilities. “At the very least, one could speculate that the Neanderthal languages could have featured a less complex syntax, a reduced number of functional categories (like determiners or conjunctions), and less distinctive sounds,” he writes. 


“Seemingly too, these languages might have been less able to convey sophisticated propositional meanings,” continues the author.

Regarding the sound of Neanderthal parlance, Benítez-Burraco says that the “cold, dry, and open environments” in which the species lived may have encouraged a “rich consonantism”. This assumption is based on known associations between environment and language, whereby cold temperatures “disfavor the use of pitch for conveying linguistic information” while dryness “disfavors vocalic sounds.”

“Needless to say, this is a very rough, highly speculative depiction of a putative Neanderthal language,” says Benítez-Burraco. By the author's own admission, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure how our ancient relatives spoke. Unless we invent a time machine, that is.

The study is currently awaiting peer review and is available as preprint on PsyArXiv.


humansHumanshumansancient ancestors
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  • Neanderthals,

  • language,

  • linguistics,

  • early hominids,

  • ancient ancestors,

  • Early hominins