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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1999 Feb 16;96(4):1800-4.

Hypoglossal canal size and hominid speech.

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Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.


The mammalian hypoglossal canal transmits the nerve that supplies the motor innervation to the tongue. Hypoglossal canal size has previously been used to date the origin of human-like speech capabilities to at least 400,000 years ago and to assign modern human vocal abilities to Neandertals. These conclusions are based on the hypothesis that the size of the hypoglossal canal is indicative of speech capabilities. This hypothesis is falsified here by the finding of numerous nonhuman primate taxa that have hypoglossal canals in the modern human size range, both absolutely and relative to oral cavity volume. Specimens of Australopithecus afarensis, Australopithecus africanus, and Australopithecus boisei also have hypoglossal canals that, both absolutely and relative to oral cavity volume, are equal in size to those of modern humans. The basis for the hypothesis that hypoglossal canal size is indicative of speech was the assumption that hypoglossal canal size is correlated with hypoglossal nerve size, which in turn is related to tongue function. This assumption is probably incorrect, as we found no apparent correlation between the size of the hypoglossal nerve, or the number of axons it contains, and the size of the hypoglossal canal in a sample of cadavers. Our data demonstrate that the size of the hypoglossal canal does not reflect vocal capabilities or language usage. Thus the date of origin for human language and the speech capabilities of Neandertals remain open questions.

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