The descended larynx is not uniquely human

William Tecumseh Sherman Fitch, D Reby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

276 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Morphological modifications of vocal anatomy are widespread among vertebrates, and the investigation of the physiological mechanisms and adaptive functions of such variants is an important focus of research into the evolution or communication. The 'descended larynx' of adult humans has traditionally been considered unique to our species, representing all adaptation for articulate speech, and debate concerning the position of the larynx in extinct hominids assumes that a lowered larynx is diagnostic of speech and language. Here, we use bioacoustic analyses of vocalizing animals, together with anatomical analyses of functional morphology, to document descended larynges in red and fallow deer. The resting position of the larynx in males of these species is similar to that in humans, and, during roaring, red-deer stags lower the larynx even further, to the sternum. These findings indicate that laryngeal descent is not uniquely human and has evolved at least twice in independent lineages. We suggest that laryngeal descent serves to elongate the vocal tract, allowing callers to exaggerate their perceived body size by decreasing vocal-tract resonant frequencies. Vocal-tract elongation is common in birds and is probably present ill additional mammals. Size exaggeration provides a non-linguistic alternative hypothesis for the descent of the larynx in human evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1669-1675
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B: Biological Sciences
Volume268
Issue number1477
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 22 Aug 2001

Keywords

  • laryngeal descent
  • cervid vocalization
  • formant frequencies'
  • evolution of language
  • vocal-tract elongation
  • VOCAL-TRACT LENGTH
  • RED DEER
  • HONEST ADVERTISEMENT
  • ANIMAL VOCALIZATION
  • SOUND-TRANSMISSION
  • CERVUS-ELAPHUS
  • EVOLUTION
  • ACOUSTICS
  • MACAQUES
  • HABITATS

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