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Rolf Quam

Professor of Anthropology

Binghamton University


Reconstructing hearing in human fossils: a new approach to the evolution of language?

October 13th, 2014

Academic A G008

5:10 PM to 6:15 PM

Room opens at 5 PM. Talk starts promptly at 5:10 PM.


The evolution of human language is one of the oldest questions in paleoanthropology. Nevertheless, many previous attempts to approach this question based on human fossil morphology have not yielded informative results. Here we take a new approach to this question by studying the evolution of audition. Human hearing differs from that of other primates, including chimpanzees, in maintaining a heightened sensitivity between 1-8 kHz, a region that contains relevant acoustic information in spoken language. Comparative analysis of primate audiograms suggests that this represents a unique derived feature in modern humans. Knowledge of the auditory capacities in our fossil human ancestors could greatly enhance the understanding of when this human pattern emerged during the course of our evolutionary history.

We have analyzed the auditory capacities in five fossil human specimens from the Middle Pleistocene site of the Sima de los Huesos (SH) in the Sierra de Atapuerca of Spain. The results demonstrate that the Atapuerca (SH) hominins resemble modern humans in showing a heightened sensitivity between 1-5 kHz. The presence of a modern human auditory pattern in the Atapuerca hominins suggests that these Middle Pleistocene humans already possessed the anatomical features of the outer and middle ear that support the perception of human spoken language. Given the intuitive link between sound perception and vocal production in animals, the study of auditory capacities may have implications for the emergence of language in our fossil human ancestors. Although the study of audition is an indirect approach to the question of speech capacity in fossil specimens, our results are consistent with other recent suggestions for the presence of some form of spoken language in the genus Homo prior to the appearance of our own species, Homo sapiens.


Dr. Rolf Quam is currently assistant professor of anthropology at Binghamton University (SUNY). He received his B.A. in anthropology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, his M.A. in anthropology from Northern Illinois University and his Ph.D. in anthropology from Binghamton University (SUNY). He lived in Spain for five years while completing his doctoral work and subsequently was a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He also participates in the ongoing fieldwork being carried out at the Pleistocene locality of Atapuerca in northern Spain. These sites contain some of the richest human fossil bearing deposits in the world and have recently yielded the oldest human fossil ever found in Europe. During the course of his research, he has personally studied a wide diversity of original human fossils from Europe, the Middle East and Africa.


Reading will be posted to the EvoS blackboard group. Anyone with a Binghamton University email address can request to be added to the blackboard group by emailing EvoS[at]binghamton[dot]edu.


Recording starts at 3 minutes and 20 seconds.

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Rich Media Playback: https://bustream.binghamton.edu:8443/ess/echo/presentation/68dd97d4-92fa-4b79-afe8-ceab4c39f03a

Vodcast Playback: https://bustream.binghamton.edu:8443/ess/echo/presentation/68dd97d4-92fa-4b79-afe8-ceab4c39f03a/media.m4v

Podcast Playback: https://bustream.binghamton.edu:8443/ess/echo/presentation/68dd97d4-92fa-4b79-afe8-ceab4c39f03a/media.mp3

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