Researchers have found evidence to suggest that Neanderthals may have spoken languages not too different from ones currently used by humans.

Scientists at the University of New England used 3-D X-ray imaging to examine the hyoid bone from 60,000-year-old Neanderthal remains discovered about 25 years ago in Israel.

The remains revealed that Neanderthals’ hyoid bone, which is found in the front of the throat and allows the formation of distinct sounds used in speech, was virtually indistinguishable from the one found in humans.

Scientists suspected this similarity allowed Neanderthals to speak, but they were unable to prove it without recent advances in three-dimensional X-ray technology.

The UNE researchers analyzed the mechanical behavior of the fossilized bone using microscopic X-ray imaging and built models of the hyoid that included the bone’s intricate internal structure.

Then they compared this to models of the modern human’s hyoid bone.

“The Neanderthal hyoid was basically indistinguishable from our own, strongly suggesting that this key part of the vocal tract was used in the same way,” said Stephen Wroe, a zoologist and palaeontologist at UNE.

The U-shaped hyoid bone helps support the tongue and raise the larynx to vocalize or swallow, but its location in humans -- apparently shared by Neanderthals -- allows for a large variety of distinct sounds.

"From this research, we can conclude that it's likely that the origins of speech and language are far, far older than once thought," he said.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]