Neanderthals, our extinct relatives, may have had language skills very similar to ours, but less structurally complex and functionally flexible. This is the conclusion reached by Antonio Benitez-Burraco, a linguist at the University of Seville, in his study combining anatomical, sociocultural, cognitive, ecological and genetic data.
The vocal tract of Neanderthals was very similar to ours, indicating their ability to reproduce most sounds as we do. Their hearing was also similar to that of modern humans, indicating the necessary equipment for complex vocal communication.
However, the shape of the skull cavity of Neanderthals indicates that their brains were less “spherical” than ours. This may mean that they had less developed cross-modal thinking, which may have limited their ability to create complex linguistic structures by combining different concepts.
The simplicity of the tools used by Neanderthals may indicate that they had a less developed capacity for hierarchical thinking. Perhaps they could not construct complex phrases or sentences. The lack of cultural adaptation over time may also indicate their inability to innovate due to limited working memory resources.
Benitez-Burraco believes that all these cognitive limitations probably limited the linguistic abilities of Neanderthals. Their languages may have had less complex syntax, fewer functional categories and less distinctive sounds. It is also possible that their languages were less capable of conveying complex propositional meanings.
The environment may also have influenced the sound of Neanderthal language. The cold, dry and open environment in which they lived may have contributed to the rich consonantism in their language. This assumption is based on the connection between environment and language, where low temperatures and dryness are not favorable for the use of pitch and vocal sounds.
However, Benitez-Burraco notes that this is only a speculative view of Neanderthal language. We will probably never know exactly how they spoke, unless we invent a time machine.