The sound of the Neanderthals

Reconstruction painting showing an Early Neanderthal Man.
Reconstruction painting showing an Early Neanderthal Man.
<em>Neanderthal</em> performance, National Museum Cardiff
The first live performance of Neanderthal at the National Museum Cardiff, February 2009.

Neanderthal remains dating back 230,000 years have been found at Pontnewydd Cave, Denbighshire in Wales. The teeth and stone tools provided the inspiration for composer Simon Thorne to create a soundscape, Neanderthal, to play in the galleries at Amgueddfa Cymru to bring otherwise silent displays to life

Neanderthals were an evolutionary dead-end, although modern humans such as ourselves shared a common ancestor with them some 600,000 years ago. They have the same inner ear and vocal structures as us, and therefore had the ability to create and hear sounds. It is possible, however, that Neanderthal brains worked in very different ways from ours. The links between different parts of the brain might not have been as fluid as they are in ours. They might not have been able to form language as a way to communicate.

Neanderthals might have had a better capacity than us to communicate and to express themselves through song. The soundscape Simon has created is based on the voice and recordings of natural sounds recorded during a visit to Pontnewydd Cave. These include the drips from the cave roof and the river flowing in the valley bottom. The sounds a Neanderthal heard would have included the communication of animals and bird song. Neanderthals would have made sounds themselves too. These would have included the chipping of stone tools; when flint is knapped (or struck) an unflawed nodule rings with a bright sound and the knapper knows whether the flint is suitable for making the flakes needed to create a stone toolkit. Neanderthals could use their voices; perhaps they sang their way through their landscapes and used sound to communicate to one another while hunting.

Neanderthal is pure imagination. However, it is based on science and helps to bring an otherwise silent museum display to life in new and exciting ways.

Article by: Elizabeth Walker, Curator of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Archaeology

The Neanderthal soundscapes:

Article Date: 14 May 2009

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