Sammy Nickalls
September 28, 2015 7:44 am

Do you think you have good hearing? Sorry, but you’ve got NOTHIN’ on your great-great-great-great-(insert a bajillion more greats here) grandma. According to a recent study led by Rolf Quam of Binghamton University in New York, ancient human beings may have had extra sharp hearing abilities. The reason: To help them with short-range communication in an open area, such as a field.

In the study, the researchers studied skulls and ear bones from Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus. These two species lived a long, long time ago — like, we’re talking one to three million years ago; our species, Homo sapiens, originated approximately 200,000 years ago.

Because of a limited number of specimens with intact ear bones, they concentrated on ancient human beings that lived primarily in South Africa. After traveling to South Africa and reconstructing the internal anatomy on computers and comparing to chimpanzees and humans of today, researchers found something interesting: that although the ancient humans had a similar range to chimpanzees, it shifted slightly more towards humans, meaning that ancient humans had better hearing than both chimps and modern humans.

“[The hominins’] hearing pattern is similar to a chimpanzee[‘s], but slightly different,” Quam told LiveScience. “That difference seems to be in the direction of humans.”

We already can hear a wider range of frequencies than other primates, but our ancestors could hear high-frequency sounds — those sounds we make when we pronounce the letters “S,” “K,” and “F,” for example — especially well, suggests the study. This helped them detect communication in shorter distances (up to 75 feet) with much more ease.

“It turns out that this auditory pattern may have been particularly favorable for living on the savanna. In more open environments, sound waves don’t travel as far as in the rainforest canopy, so short-range communication is favored on the savanna,” Quam told Reuters.

Of course, this doesn’t mean ancient human beings had a modern language. “They certainly could communicate vocally,” Quam said in a statement. “All primates do, but we’re not saying they had fully developed human language, which implies a symbolic content.”

In fact, if we would hear the voices of ancient human beings today, we might be pretty weirded out, paleontologist Juan Luis Arsuaga of Spain’s Universidad Complutense de Madrid told Reuters. Results from the study suggest that their voices “would sound strange, half chimp-like, half human, to us. Or in other terms, not completely human.”

Oh, science, how we love you. So, next time you have a hard time hearing what someone else is saying, just chalk it up to evolution.

(Images via Buena Vista Pictures)

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