Journal of Human Evolution 51(3): 244-254

Descent of the hyoid in chimpanzees: evolution of facial flattening and speech.

Takeshi Nishimura, Akichika Mikami, Juri Suzuki, Tetsuro Matsuzawa

Abstract

The human supralaryngeal vocal tract develops to form a unique two-tube configuration with equally long horizontal and vertical cavities. This anatomy contributes greatly to the morphological foundations of human speech. It is believed to depend on the reduced growth of the palate and on the developmental descent of the larynx relative to the palate. Anatomically, the descent of the larynx is accomplished through both the descent of the laryngeal skeleton relative to the hyoid and the descent of the hyoid relative to the palate. We have studied the development of three living chimpanzees using magnetic resonance imaging. Our previous study showed that, as in humans, chimpanzees show rapid laryngeal descent, with changes in the relative proportion of the vocal tract during early infancy. However, this is not accompanied by the descent of the hyoid relative to the palate, although it is achieved with the descent of the laryngeal skeleton relative to the hyoid. Here, we show that subsequently the chimpanzee hyoid also descends to maintain the rapid descent of the larynx, similarly to humans. We argue that the descent of the larynx probably evolved in a common ancestor of extant hominoids, originally to confer an advantage via a function unrelated to speech. Thus, the descent of the larynx per se is not unique to humans, and facial flattening was probably the major factor that paved the way for speech in the human lineage.

Keywords

Descent of the larynx, Vocal tract, Pan troglodytes, MRI, Longitudinal study

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Nishimura T, Mikami A, Suzuki J, Matsuzawa T (2006) Descent of the hyoid in chimpanzees: evolution of facial flattening and speech. Journal of Human Evolution 51(3): 244-254 , doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2006.03.005