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Study: Neanderthals had “language gene”

Oct. 18, 2007
Courtesy Cell Press
and World Science staff

Hu­mans’ clos­est ex­tinct rel­a­tives, the Ne­an­der­thals, pos­sessed a key gene var­i­ant be­lieved to be re­lat­ed to our abil­ity to speak, re­search­ers have found. The dis­co­very, they said, shows that this muta­t­ion arose much ear­li­er than sci­en­tists had sus­pected, and raises at least the pos­si­bil­ity that Ne­an­der­thals could talk.

“From the point of view of this gene, there is no rea­son to think that Ne­an­der­thals would not have had the abil­ity for lan­guage,” said Jo­han­nes Krause of the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Ev­o­lu­tion­ary An­thro­po­l­ogy in Leip­zig, Ger­ma­ny, one of the sci­en­tists. He not­ed, how­ev­er, that many oth­er as-yet-unknown genes might un­der­lie lan­guage, so the is­sue re­mains un­re­solved. 

The gene, called FOXP2, is the only one known to play a role in speech and lan­guage, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers. Peo­ple who car­ry an ab­nor­mal copy of the gene have speech and lan­guage prob­lems. 

Pre­vi­ous stud­ies in­di­cat­ed that a spread in the hu­man var­i­ant oc­curred be­cause of strong ev­o­lu­tion­ary pres­sure less than 200,000 years ago, said the in­sti­tute’s Svante Pääbo. Since the Ne­an­der­thal and mod­ern hu­man lin­eages branched apart more than 300,000 years ago, “we would have guessed that these changes in FOXP2 would have hap­pened af­ter we sep­a­rat­ed from Ne­an­der­thals,” Pääbo said. He not­ed that the hu­man ver­sion dif­fers from that of chimps in two places.

The researchers analyzed DNA from fos­sils found in a cave in north­ern Spain of Nean­der­thals, an extinct sub­species of stocky hu­mans who lived in Eur­ope and the Medi­ter­ra­nean area from around 100,000 to 30,000 years ago.

The study marks the first time a spe­cif­ic “nu­cle­ar” gene has been re­trieved from Ne­an­der­thals, re­search­ers added. Nu­clear genes are those that re­side in the cell nu­cle­us, the vast ma­jor­ity of our genes. Oth­er, more spe­cial­ized genes re­side in cel­lu­lar com­part­ments known as mi­to­chon­dria.

The find­ing opens the door to oth­er break­throughs in un­der­stand­ing hu­man and Ne­an­der­thal ev­o­lu­tion, the re­search­ers said. “Leav­ing out the un­likely sce­nar­i­o of gene flow [be­tween the two lin­eages], this es­tab­lishes that these changes were pre­s­ent in the com­mon an­ces­tor of mod­ern hu­mans and Ne­an­der­tals,” they wrote. The study is to be pub­lished on­line Oct. 18 in the re­search jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­ol­o­gy.


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Humans’ closest extinct relatives, the Neanderthals, possessed a key gene variant believed to be related to our ability to speak, researchers have found. The finding shows this mutation arose much earlier than scientists had suspected, and raises at least the possibility that Neandertals could talk, scientists said. “From the point of view of this gene, there is no reason to think that Neandertals would not have had the ability for language,” said Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, one of the scientists. He noted, however, that many other as-yet-unknown genes might underlie language, so the issue remains unresolved. The gene, called FOXP2, is the only one known to play a role in speech and language, according to the researchers. People who carry an abnormal copy of the gene have speech and language problems. Previous studies indicated that a spread in the human variant occurred because of strong evolutionary pressure less than 200,000 years ago, said the institute’s Svante Pääbo. Since the Neanderthal and modern human lineages branched apart more than 300,000 years ago, “we would have guessed that these changes in FOXP2 would have happened after we separated from Neandertals,” Pääbo said. He noted that the human version of differs from that of chimps in two places. The based their conclusion on DNA from Neandertal fossils collected in a cave in northern Spain. The study marks the first time a specific “nuclear” gene has been retrieved from Neandertals, researchers added. Nuclear genes are those that reside in the cell nucleus, the vast majority of our genes. Other, more specialized genes reside in cellular compartments known as mitochondria. The finding opens the door to other breakthroughs in scientists’ understanding of human and Neandertal evolution, the researchers said. “Leaving out the unlikely scenario of gene flow [between the two lineages], this establishes that these changes were present in the common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals,” they wrote. The study is to be published online Oct. 18 in the research journal Current Biology.