It only takes a few gene tweaks to make a human voice

Aug 28, 2017

By Andy Coghlan

How and when did we first become able to speak? A new analysis of our DNA reveals key evolutionary changes that reshaped our faces and larynxes, and which may have set the stage for complex speech.

The alterations were not major mutations in our genes. Instead, they were tweaks in the activity of existing genes that we shared with our immediate ancestors.

These changes in gene activity seem to have given us flat faces, by retracting the protruding chins of our ape ancestors. They also resculpted the larynx and moved it further down in the throat, allowing our ancestors to make sounds with greater subtleties.

The study offers an unprecedented glimpse into how our faces and vocal tracts were altered at the genetic level, paving the way for the sophisticated speech we take for granted.

However, other anthropologists say changes in the brain were at least equally important. It is also possible that earlier ancestors could speak, but in a more crude way, and that the facial changes simply took things up a notch.

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