The descended larynx is not uniquely human

W. Tecumseh Fitch, David Reby

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 of communication. The ‘descended larynx’ of adult humans has traditionally been considered unique to our species, representing an 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 in additional mammals. Size exaggeration provides a non–linguistic alternative hypothesis for the descent of the larynx in human evolution.