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Outer and Middle Ear Fossils Provide Clues to Origin of Speech

A study examining auditory abilities using human fossils from the Pleistocene era offers new clues about the origins of speech, suggesting it may have emerged earlier than previously believed. The study, entitled Auditory capacities of human fossils: A new approach to the origin of speech was presented at Acoustics 08 Paris in July.

The outer and middle ears from five fossil human specimens from the Middle Pleistocene were examined using virtual 3D CT reconstruction. The results demonstrated that these auditory systems would have had heightened sensitivity in the range of 1 5 kHz, similar to that of modern humans. This frequency range plays an important contribution to the understanding of speech, and sensitivity in this area is not seen in chimpanzees or other primates. The fossils are thought to be at least 530,000 years old, indicating modern auditory capacity may have evolved prior to that time.

While the emergence of a modern day auditory pattern does not provide direct evidence of the emergence of speech production, the researchers indicate that it is consistent with findings from other recent studies suggesting spoken language may have emerged prior to our own species.

These fascinating findings and other lay papers from Acoustics 08 Paris can be found at the website for the Acoustical Society of America, www.acoustics.org/press/.

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