Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory, Eyzies-de-Tayac, France © Pierre Andrieu/AFP/Getty Images
Forty years ago, the consensus was that they could not. Neanderthals didn’t make cave paintings, or flint arrowheads, and their larynx wasn’t positioned low enough to allow them to make the full range of human vocal sounds. But more recent discoveries have shown that Neanderthals had a hyoid bone, tongue nerves and hearing range that was very similar to modern humans, and quite different to other primates.
Neanderthals also shared the FOXP2 gene with us, which is thought to be involved in speech and language. Prof Steven Mithen of Reading University has suggested that Neanderthals may have had a ‘proto-language’ that was halfway between speech and music.