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Neanderthals speak out -

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LISA MILLAR: It's less than half a second long, and it's computer-generated, but it's got
anthropologists excited.

Researchers in the United States believe they've re-created the sound of a vowel that might have
been spoken by Neanderthals, tens of thousands of years ago.

The researchers have made reconstructions of a Neanderthal's head and neck, based on fossils found
in France.

And eventually, they hope to be able to re-create an entire Neanderthal sentence.

Barney Porter.

BARNEY PORTER: Neanderthals were a species of the homo genus, sort of like our cousins. They first
appeared in Europe and parts of Western and Central Asia around 350,000 years ago, and began
disappearing about 50,000 years ago.

It's thought the last Neanderthals in Europe died around 30,000 years ago, and debate still rages
about their interreaction with early modern humans, and reasons for their demise.

And now there's more to discuss, thanks to researchers in the United States trying to re-create the
Neanderthal language using computers.

And this is what they've come up with.

(Sound effect: Neanderthal 'E')

BARNEY PORTER: The researchers from Florida Atlantic University believe it's the vowel "E", as
spoken by Neanderthals all those years ago.

If you missed it, here it is again.

(Sound effect: Neanderthal 'E')

BARNEY PORTER: The ultimate aim is to re-create an entire Neanderthal sentence.

One of the researchers is Dr Robert McCarthy. He says the 1983 discovery of a hyoid bone in
Neanderthals was significant.

(Sound effect: Neanderthal 'E')

BARNEY PORTER: Sorry. Dr Robert McCarthy.

ROBERT MCCARTHY: The hyoid bone that your spoke of is actually the bone that's at the base of the
tongue. And it anchors all the tongue muscles. And what's suspended from the bottom of the hyoid is
essentially the voice box.

But they're free-floating in space. They're no bony attachment to anything. That's why it's so
extraordinarily difficult to really figure out where these things are in extinct humans, like
Neanderthals, that were a different species than us.

BARNEY PORTER: Well, then, how confident are you that you've got an accurate representation of the
sound that a Neanderthal might have made?

ROBERT MCCARTHY: We're very confident, actually, because we calculated a range of vocal tract
shapes, from the highest possible to the lowest possible position of that hyoid and voice box. And
based on those vocal track reconstructions, we then tried to synthesise speech.

(Sound effect: Neanderthal 'E')

BARNEY PORTER: Well, it has been suggested that Neanderthals had an elaborate system of
communication which was more musical than modern human language and which may have actually
predated the separation of language and music. How can you re-create, then, an entire sentence?
Where might you get your words from?

ROBERT MCCARTHY: Well, that's the very difficult problem. All we can say is what they could and
could have done, and we say they could not have produced this one particular type of speech sound
which is so important for human spoken language.

BARNEY PORTER: Are you confident you will get a sentence out one day?

ROBERT MCCARTHY: I think so. And I think the... what's behind your question is that, of course
Neanderthals could not speak English, and so of course the sentence we're going to produce is going
to be English or French or German or something like that.

But that's not a language that they would have spoken. But what we will be able to do is meld those
sounds together. Now, that's an incredibly difficult task, and that's one we're working on very
hard. It's going to be a little while before we do it, but we will be able to do it. I'm pretty
confident about that.

LISA MILLAR: A hopeful researcher, Dr Robert McCarthy, ending that report by Barney Porter.