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Neanderthals may have talked—even contributed to our languages, scholars claim

July 10, 2013
Courtesy of the Max Planck 
In­sti­tute for Psy­cho­lin­guis­tics
and World Science staff

Ne­an­der­thal peo­ple may have pos­sessed lan­guage, and their words might even have con­tri­but­ed to the lan­guages of our spe­cies, two sci­en­tists pro­pose.

Though the sec­ond idea has yet to be tested, they add, ev­i­dence al­ready ex­ists for the first. Both pro­pos­als fol­low recent find­ings that Nean­der­thals interbred with an­cestors of mod­ern hu­mans.

Da­ta is quickly ac­cu­mu­lating that seems to in­di­cate that Ne­an­der­thals, close cousins to mod­ern peo­ple, were much more like us than im­ag­ined even a dec­ade ago, say re­search­ers Dan Dediu and Ste­phen C. Levin­son of the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Psy­cho­lin­guis­tics in Nij­me­gen, Neth­er­lands.

They ar­gue that mod­ern lan­guage and speech can be traced back to the last com­mon an­ces­tor we shared with the Ne­an­der­thals, roughly half a mil­lion years ago. A pa­per de­tail­ing the pair’s work ap­peared in the July 5 on­line is­sue of the jour­nal Fron­tiers in Lan­guage Sci­ences.

The Ne­an­der­thals have fas­ci­nat­ed schol­ars and the pub­lic alike ev­er since their dis­cov­ery al­most 200 years ago. In­i­tially thought to be sub­hu­man brutes in­ca­pa­ble of much be­yond prim­i­tive grunts, they were a suc­cess­ful form of hu­man­ity in­hab­it­ing vast swathes of west­ern Eur­a­sia for sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand years, in­clud­ing dur­ing harsh gla­cial per­iods. 

It’s well es­tab­lished that they were our clos­est cousins, shar­ing a com­mon an­ces­tor with us around half a mil­lion years ago—probably the spe­cies Ho­mo hei­del­ber­gen­sis, Dediu and Levin­son say. But it has been un­clear what their men­tal ca­pa­ci­ties were, or why mod­ern hu­mans re­placed them—an es­ti­mat­ed 28,000 years ago—after thou­sands of years of co­hab­ita­t­ion.

Due to new palaeoan­thro­po­log­i­cal and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal find­ings and re­assess­ments of old­er da­ta, but es­pe­cially to the avail­abil­ity of an­cient DNA, we’ve started to real­ize that their fate was in­ter­twined with ours, the re­search­ers not­ed. And far from be­ing slow brutes, they added, their men­tal ca­pa­ci­ties and cul­ture were com­pa­ra­ble to ours.

Dediu and Levin­son re­view all these strands of lit­er­a­ture and ar­gue that es­sen­tially mod­ern lan­guage and speech are an an­cient fea­ture of our line­age dat­ing back at least to the most re­cent an­ces­tor we shared with the Ne­an­der­thals and the Deniso­vans, an­oth­er form of hu­man­ity known mostly from DNA. 

Their in­ter­preta­t­ion of the am­big­u­ous, scant ev­i­dence con­tra­dicts the sce­nar­i­o usu­ally as­sumed by most lan­guage sci­en­tists, that of a sud­den and re­cent emer­gence of mod­ern­ity—pre­sumably due to one or very few muta­t­ions. In­stead, the re­search­ers fa­vor a sce­nar­i­o of grad­u­al ac­cu­mula­t­ion of biolog­i­cal and cul­tur­al in­nova­t­ions.

The new pic­ture would push back the ori­gins of mod­ern lan­guage over ten­fold, from the often-cited 50 or so thou­sand years, to around a mil­lion years ago. That’s some­where be­tween the ori­gins of our ge­nus, Ho­mo, some 1.8 mil­lion years ago, and the emer­gence of Ho­mo hei­del­ber­gen­sis. A ge­nus is a biolog­i­cal clas­sifica­t­ion that em­braces a num­ber of spe­cies.

Giv­en that ar­chae­o­log­i­cal and ge­net­ic da­ta shows mod­ern hu­mans spread­ing from Af­ri­ca mixed with Ne­an­der­thals and Deniso­vans, then just as we car­ry around some of their genes, our lan­guages may pre­serve traces of theirs, the sci­en­tists added. The idea, they ar­gued, is test­a­ble by com­par­ing the struc­tur­al prop­er­ties of Af­ri­can and non-Af­ri­can lan­guages, and by com­put­er sim­ula­t­ions of lan­guage spread.


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Neanderthal people may have possessed language, and their words might even have contributed to the languages of our species, two scientists propose. Though the second idea has yet to be tested, they add, evidence already exists for the first. Data is quickly accumulating that seems to indicate that Neanderthals, close cousins to modern people, were much more like us than imagined even a decade ago, said researchers Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands. They argue that modern language and speech can be traced back to the last common ancestor we shared with the Neanderthals roughly half a million years ago. A paper detailing their work appeared in the July 5 online issue of the journal Frontiers in Language Sciences The Neanderthals have fascinated both scholars and the public ever since their discovery almost 200 years ago. Initially thought to be subhuman brutes incapable of much beyond primitive grunts, they were a successful form of humanity inhabiting vast swathes of western Eurasia for several hundred thousands of years, including during harsh ice ages. It’s well established that they were our closest cousins, sharing a common ancestor with us around half a million years ago—probably the species Homo heidelbergensis, Dediu and Levinson say. But it has been unclear what their mental capacities were, or why modern humans replaced them—an estimated 28,000 years ago—after thousands of years of cohabitation. Due to new palaeoanthropological and archaeological findings and reassessments of older data, but especially to the availability of ancient DNA, we’ve started to realize that their fate was intertwined with ours, the researchers noted. And far from being slow brutes, they added, their mental capacities and culture were comparable to ours. Dediu and Levinson review all these strands of literature and argue that essentially modern language and speech are an ancient feature of our lineage dating back at least to the most recent ancestor we shared with the Neanderthals and the Denisovans, another form of humanity known mostly from DNA. Their interpretation of the ambiguous, scant evidence contradicts the scenario usually assumed by most language scientists, that of a sudden and recent emergence of modernity—presumably due to one or very few mutations. Instead, the researchers favor a scenario involving a gradual accumulation of biological and cultural innovations. The new picture would push back the origins of modern language tenfold from the often-cited 50 or so thousand years, to around a million years ago. That’s somewhere between the origins of our genus, Homo, some 1.8 million years ago, and the emergence of Homo heidelbergensis. A genus is a biological classification that embraces a number of species. Given that we know from archaeological finds and genetic data that the modern humans spreading from Africa interbred and interacted with the Neanderthals and Denisovans, then just as our bodies carry around some of their genes, our languages may preserve traces of their languages too, the scientists added. This would suggest at least some of our linguistic diversity is due to these ancient encounters—an idea testable by comparing the structural properties of African and non-African languages, and by computer simulations of language spread.