neanderthal neanderthal Diet was a big part of human evolution. (Photo: Neanderthal Museum)

Are these the genes that taught humans to speak?

Scientists figured out how the DNA responsible for our voices changed as our ancient ancestors evolved.

Human speech is pretty awesome. Granted, whales can sing, and bats can argue, but something feels pretty special about the way we tell each other stories and yell at each other from cars.

Our ability to speak so well is something of a mystery. Where did it come from? When did it come from? Luckily, scientists just found some of the genes that might be behind our uniquely human kind of speech.

A team of researchers from around the world, led by Liran Carmel at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, looked at genes from ancient humans, modern humans and chimpanzees to try and understand how DNA changed in our species. They noticed that genes responsible for making our faces flatter and developing our larynxes were different in humans. This suggests that those physical changes could have given us our uniquely human voices.

"Our results provide insights into the molecular mechanisms that underlie modern human face and voice, and suggest that they arose after the split from Neanderthals and Denisovans," wrote the scientists. So if you build a time machine to visit your Neanderthal ancestor, you might have a tough time chatting with them.

“Neanderthals most likely had brains capable of learning and executing the complex manoeuvres involved in talking, but their speech would not have been as clear and comprehensible as ours, perhaps accounting in part for their extinction,” said Philip Lieberman, a cognitive scientist from Brown University in Rhode Island. “I think Neanderthals could talk, but more indistinctly than us.”

Of course, all of this is still a theory. Other scientists argue that plenty of apes can make human-like sounds. But with each new study, we get closer to figuring out just why we can communicate the way we do.

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