In 2021, researchers from the University of Alcalá found fossil evidence that Neanderthals spoke. The team leader responsible for this discovery was Mercedes Conde, assistant professor of life sciences at the university. It was a discovery that ended a scientific debate for several decades, by verifying the existence of language. The teacher says that her first profession was not paleontology, but veterinary medicine. “One of my uncles is a rural vet and he used to take me to consultations when he was a kid. I had such a great time surrounded by animals which I think made me decide to study a career that had something to do with it,” she says.
Through this experience, he decided to study biology, specifically the zoology major, at the University of Alcalá. During her studies she felt “attracted” to study field ecology, specifically during her one-year residency at the Norwegian University of Hedmark. It was her excavation work in Atapuerca, where she continued to work, that finally led her to devote herself to paleontology. “I’ve never considered career opportunities for a paleontologist, it just seemed exciting to me and I just drifted away.”
He specialized in this field in the study of human fossils, a branch known as paleoanthropology. “The truth is that women are predominant in my field. But more than an important problem, I think it is a question of equality: that everyone has the opportunity, the preparation and the references needed to be able to develop his or her career,” she explains.
Currently, he is devoted to the study of the development of anatomy and the functioning of the ear in human evolution. He highlights that “people have hearing somewhat different from that of other primates as an adaptation to our oral language”. That is, human hearing specializes in the ability to distinguish “with great sensitivity” to the sounds of language. “Knowing how people heard in the past is one of the keys to tracing the origin and evolution of human language,” says Condé.
Science as a way of life
Condi is currently developing two lines of research that he describes as “particularly interesting”. On the other hand, to extend studies of auditory abilities and their type of communication to other animals such as great apes and dogs, each one for a different scientific interest. On the other hand, he explains, he has a “huge interest” in finding medical applications for the knowledge we gain about the development of our hearing.
That is why he directs the Research Chair in Audiology and Paleoanthropology at HM Hospitals and the University of Alcalá, one of his main goals being to develop lines of cooperation with specialists in the field of otolaryngology to find those applications you mentioned. Within the framework of this chair’s work, “very promising” lines of research could have been envisaged for application in clinical and surgical otology, Conde announced in the recent renewal of the agreement between hospitals and the university.
Regarding the role of women in science, Conde explains that she only wants to speak based on her experience which has shown her that “there are no differences” in estimating the abilities and skills of women and men. When asked if she thinks women and men are equal in scientific careers, she said she “didn’t have that feeling” and that being a woman “has had no effect” on her career. Indeed, she explains that in her field of work, women constitute the “majority” and that they “began to occupy” the highest positions of responsibility.
Her message to young women who want to go into science: “Let them do it! It’s an exciting life…although they should know it’s a long and hard road that requires a lot of career and career stability doesn’t come until much later. A great biologist said Once upon a time: science is not a profession, it is a way of life,” he concludes.