Cavemen vs. Modern humans: Who heard it better?

Published 13-12-2016
Last Updated09-01-2020

Did cavemen hear better than we do today?
Maybe. According to a new study from researchers at Binghamton University in New York, early humans could hear better than both chimpanzees and modern humans at certain frequencies.

But how do you find out how people who lived 1 to 3 million years ago could hear?

Luckily, detailed fossils of early human skulls give clues as to how early humans used their ears. Using computer imaging, researchers studied the anatomy of the outer and middle ear of these humans, who long ago lived in South Africa. Compared with chimpanzees, these fossils showed shorter and wider external auditory canals, smaller tympanic membranes, and a lower malleus/incus lever ratio.

To put it simply, early humans didn’t hear in the same way as we do.

Researchers reconstructed the hearing capabilities of these early humans by using virtual reconstructions of fossilized remains. They then used this information to predict how these ancient humans would hear. The results? Better hearing than chimpanzees – and different hearing than humans have today.

Early humans had heightened sensitivities to frequencies between 1.5 and 3.5 kHZ. In layman’s terms, that’s where sounds like rustling leaves, vacuum cleaners, telephones, and hard consonants like “P”, “H” , “G”, “CH”, and “SH” fall when it comes to the human hearing range. But they didn’t totally topple modern humans when it comes to hearing. Modern humans can hear significantly better in upper frequencies.

Why does it matter?

By comparing the ears and hearing capabilities of chimpanzees, early humans, and modern people, researchers saw clues on how communication has changed over time. When compared with chimpanzees, early humans were good with hearing at higher frequencies – and modern humans were even better at this. This, according to researchers, is what helps us use “complex short-range vocal communication”.

In other words, it’s why we can have a conversation across a table, rather than relying on grunting and howling across a jungle. This range also contains unique consonant sounds like t, k, f, and s. According to the study, “the use of consonants is one of the main distinctions … between human language and most forms of animal communication.”

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