Did you ever wonder What A Mummy Sounds Like? Have you ever wondered what sounds does a dinosaur make? Or what does it sound like when a Neanderthal speaks? Scientists have used fossil evidence to hypothesis the sounds ancient creatures make. DNA analyses and computer models now attempt to break the silence of the distant past. 3D printing and body scanning technology have lent a little bit of voice to a 3,000 year old mummy of an ancient Egyptian Nesyamun.
Researchers have studied the shape formed by the human vocal tract and how it affects the sound that emerges from it. Medical scanning technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography have allowed scientists to examine living human vocal cords, when speaking, singing, and even beatboxing. These scans have helped researchers create digital models and 3D printed replicas of these body parts to better understand the physical forms and sounds that are produced. Push Play Below!
In 2013 David Howard, an electronic engineer now at Royal Holloway, University of London, was demonstrating one such model—a “vocal tract organ” that plays vowel sounds through a 3-D-printed replica of a larynx. The device caught the attention of John Schofield, an archaeologist at the University of York in England. “I sat there, wondering if one could use this technology to re-create a voice from the distant past, provided the important soft tissue of the oral cavity remained intact,” Schofield says.
In most corpses, the soft tissues decay quickly, but mummification can preserve these structures for thousands of years. In the case of Nesyamun, a scribe and priest at the temple Karnak during the reign of Ramses XI, he died in his mid 50s and was laid to rest more than three millennia ago. Researchers have been studying his body since it was first discovered in 1824. His remains currently reside at the Leeds City Museum in England, where a team led by Howard and Schofield used CT scans to examine his larynx and throat. Researchers discovered that enough soft tissue remained for them to measure the dimensions of his airway from his larynx to his lips. These cans allowed researchers to reproduce his vocal tract in a computer model and they were able to create a 3D print. Before printing the replica vocal tract, the team added extra details to the digital model that would help in producing sounds.
Howard says, “a coupling cylinder was added at the larynx end to connect it to a loudspeaker, which inputs a larynx sound” that is commonly used in today’s speech-synthesis systems. In a typical human body, air comes from the lungs and passes through the vocal cords, or folds, which vibrate to produce sounds that are then modified in the vocal tract. In Howard’s apparatus, the loudspeaker acted as both lungs and vocal folds, approximating the pitch produced by a typical adult male’s body. When this burst of sound moved through the 3-D-printed vocal tract, it produced a vowel that falls between the “e” in “bed” and the “a” in “bad.” It can be heard it in the brief audio clip below.
So how close might this sound be to Nesyamun’s real voice? “Overall, I think it was a well-made study,” Aalto says. But, he adds, “what makes a voice recognizable in humans—and what creates our unique voice—is not only the vocal tract shape but also how we are using our vocal folds.” Because the study’s audio originated in a mechanical source instead of living vocal cords, it reflects the shape of Nesyamun’s vocal tract, but it cannot exactly replicate his voice. And the printed vocal tract does not precisely match the living version: the researchers point out that Nesyamun’s tongue has atrophied, and his soft palate is missing. “There’s a lot of extrapolation that happened by necessity because that data is not available,” says Shrikanth Narayanan, an engineer and speech scientist at the University of Southern California, who was not involved in the new research. “In that sense, the sound that comes out—only a part of it is explained by the data.” Furthermore, a living person actively modifies the vocal tract to form any specific vowel; Nesyamun’s experimental sound emerged when his throat was at rest.
Researchers believe that even with this imperfect simulation of a long dead voice, it can help museums make history more accessible. With this voice we can enhance the experience of observing history, and may also help in expanding other areas of science and medicine.
Sources: Scientific American