A recent article published in Science looked to the skull shapes of Early Hominins, a group comprised of our now-extinct closest ancestors and ourselves, as a prediction of what sort of auditory sensitivity they were capable of, with interesting results. The shape and size of the auditory apparatus in animals affects the intensity with which each frequency register is perceived. In the study, the inner ears of early hominins, chimpanzees and modern humans were scrutinized, and the modeled ear parts of each were used to make predictions regarding the frequencies that were more easily heard, and the results were plotted as shown below.
Insights into Early Hominin Communication
Fig. 1: Sensitivity to Sound Over a Range of Frequencies (Article in Discussion)
In the figure, the y-axis corresponds to the log of the ratio of sound power to reach the cochlea, Pcochlea, versus that of the sound source, Po, as a measure of the perceived sound intensity. The researchers conducting the study were able to show that the early hominins had a higher sensitivity to sound at around 3kHz than both chimpanzees and modern humans and generally higher sensitivity to lower frequency sounds as well, showing a decrease in sensitivity at higher frequencies that is more similar in trend to the hearing curve of chimpanzees than it is to humans. Modern humans, in contrast to the others, have a similar sensitivity curve at lower frequencies but extend hearing to higher frequency sound, dropping off near 4kHz frequency. In analyzing this finding, the researchers came to the conclusion that the adaption to a wider frequency range of hearing in modern humans was imperative for the development of consonants in human language. The researchers considered that the phonemes t, k, f and s in particular are associated with higher frequency sound and that the ability to perceive sound over a wide range of frequencies makes these sounds more distinct from each other. Since early hominins were incapable of perceiving the upper frequency range that modern humans can, the researchers postulate that communication between the early hominins would have been vowel-intensive. They make a point, however, of stating that this finding does not confirm any information about the extent to which early hominin language was used or developed; early hominins may have used a “low-fidelity social transmission” form of communication similar to that of modern chimpanzees. Nevertheless, the skulls of these early hominins have given us another insight into what life was like for some of our earliest ancestors.
The complete article on the differences in sound perception described above is available here. While the article is heavy on jargon, the results and discussion sections can be understood without fully understanding the early talk of ear anatomical differences.
Also, please let me know your thoughts on this trial article in the comments. I am trying something new with the posts here, providing brief summaries of emerging science rather than explanatory articles of everyday phenomena. Feedback helps me decide what content I post. Thanks!