What Did Australopithecines Sound Like? More "Duh" Than "Ugg"

By Valerie Ross | November 28, 2011 5:31 pm


Artist’s rendering of an Australopithecus afarensis

When archaeologists hear whispers of humanity’s past, it’s through the painstaking work of piecing together a story from artifacts and fossilized remains: The actual calls, grunts, and other sounds made by our evolutionary ancestors didn’t fossilize. But working backward from clues in ancient skeletons, Dutch researcher Bart de Boer has built plastic models of an early hominin‘s vocal tract—and, by running air through the models, recreated the sounds our ancestors may have made millions of years ago.

Non-human primates have an organ called an air sac, a large cavity that connects to the vocal tract. The air sac links onto an extension on the hyoid bone known as the hyoid bulla. Modern humans have neither an air sac nor an extension on the hyoid bone. But Australopithecus afarensis—a hominin species that roamed Africa approximately 3.9 million to 2.9 million years ago—had a hyoid bulla, the fossil record shows, meaning it’s highly likely it had an air sac, too.

Using plastic tubing, de Boer built models of the human vocal tract both without an air sac, like modern humans, and with one, like A. afarensis would have had. By pushing air through the models, he could hear what various vowels sounded like with and without the air sac. Charles Harvey at New Scientist describes the sounds that resulted:

The air sacs acted like bass drums, resonating at low frequencies, and causing vowel sounds to merge; [an Australopithecus] would have had a greatly reduced vocabulary. Even simple words – such as “tin” and “ten” – would have sounded the same to her. …

What, then, might our ancestors’ first words have been? With air sacs, vowels tend to sound like the “u” in “ugg”. But studies suggest it is easier to produce a consonant plus a vowel, and “d” is easier to form with “u”. “Drawing it all together, I think it is likely cavemen and cavewomen said ‘duh’ before they said ‘ugg’,” says de Boer.

Read more—and listen recordings of the vocal simulations—at New Scientist.

Image courtesy of 1997 / Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Physics & Math
  • Michelle

    Considering how complex the communication abilities of animals are, I suspect the scientists are once again over-simplifying the abilities of human ancestors…their paradigm is limited by pre-conceptions.

  • megan

    Also which hominid ancestor had the FOXP2 adaptation that is found to linked to modern speech and talking. That parrots have been found to have a version which could explain their ability to use their tongues so well to mimic humans and make calls and noises for communication to one another.

  • James Maine

    So the Simpsons had it correct.

  • Great Ape

    Hi Michelle, they’re not proposing that Australopithecus afarensis had limited communication abilities, just that they communicated using a particular range of vocalisations rather than another particular range of vocalisations. Generally, it would be regarded in the discipline that the other great apes (especially chimpanzees) have good communication abilities, with chimps and gorillas in captivity able to use sign language and glyph based communication, as well as other types of body language and animal communication. Human ancestors or near ancestors, such as the Australopithecines can certainly be expected to have had as good, or probably better, communication abilities than chimpanzees, so this is really an exploration into what type of voice they had.

  • G Wilkins

    Actually “ten” and “tin” can be hard to tell apart among us modern humans as well. A friend once said to me, “Look at the tint outside.”
    “Tint?”
    “The big white thing on the lawn.”
    “You mean the tent?”
    “That’s what I said!”

  • kamran the great

    @ g wilkins … was your friend a new zealander?

  • http://jackdoddadvertising.com Jack Dodd

    Sounds just like modern US teenagers… only a couple of vowel sounds emitted, primarily “uh”.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    So if duh was amongst the first words I doubt it would have been long before Hey duh! caught on. And of course the valley girl no duh must have been some hot slang thrown around by the preteens. The more it changes the more it stays the same.

  • http://aracauna.blogspot.com Jacob

    Yeah, American Southerners don’t distinguish between the short e and i sounds. We pronounce pen and pin, tin and ten exactly alike. I’ve tried making the short e sounds in those words and I end up just saying pan and tan. Are we Australopithecus afarensis?

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