Ancient hominid ears were tuned to high frequencies

Paranthropus robustus skull

HIGH-PITCHED  Scientists made a virtual 3-D reconstruction of the ear anatomy for Paranthropus robustus and determined that the hominid heard the high-frequency sounds needed to discern certain consonants.

Rolf Quam

South African hominids that lived between around 2.5 million and 1.5 million years ago had an ear for high-frequency consonant sounds, anthropologist Rolf Quam of Binghamton University in New York and colleagues report September 25 in Science Advances.

Using CT scans and digital technology, Quam’s team reconstructed the ear anatomies of two Australopithecus africanus partial skulls and one Paranthropus robustus specimen. Modern human ear measurements guided virtual re-creations of soft tissue around ear bones, enabling calculations of audible sound frequencies.

A. africanus and P. robustus could have heard high-frequency consonants associated with the letters T, K, F and S better than either chimps or present-day people do, the team found. An ability to hear, and presumably make, these sounds enhanced communication among hominids foraging in groups across open landscapes, the researchers propose. Such communication need not have required a humanlike language, only vowel and consonant sounds with shared meanings, the researchers say.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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