Modern Language May Have Roots In Ancient Neanderthals
July 10, 2013

Neanderthals May Have Shared Speech And Language With Modern Humans

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

As more data accumulates, we are learning that the Neanderthals were much more similar to us than we ever imagined. Scientists are still questioning if they had speech and language, though, and what implications would be for understanding present-day linguistic diversity if they did.

A new study from the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics argues 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.

The academic world and the general population have been fascinated with the Neanderthals since their discovery almost 200 years ago. Although scientists first considered the Neanderthals as subhuman brutes incapable of anything more than the most primitive grunts, we know that they were a successful form of humanity that inhabited vast swathes of western Eurasia for several hundreds of thousands of years, during harsh ages and milder interglacial periods.

Neanderthals were our closest cousins, sharing a common ancestor with modern humans around half a million years ago. This ancestor was most likely Homo heidelbergensis. The cognitive capabilities of Neanderthals, and why they were replaced by modern humans after thousands of years of cohabitation, were still unknown. Recent palaeoanthropological and archaeological discoveries, along with re-analysis of older data and the availability of ancient DNA, has allowed scientists to realize that the fate of Neanderthal was more intertwined with modern humans. Far from being slow brutes, the Neanderthals cognitive capacities and culture were comparable to our own.

The team, led by Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson, performed a literature review of all the recent studies. They argue that modern language and speech are an ancient feature of our lineage dating back to at least the most recent ancestor modern humans share with Neanderthals and Denisovans - another form of humanity known almost exclusively through their genome.

The team's conclusions go against the prevailing scenario believed by most language scientists - namely, that of a sudden and recent emergence of modernity, presumably due to a single - or very few - genetic mutations. The results of their review have been published in Frontiers in Language Sciences.

If the new theory is correct, this pushes the origins of modern language back by a factor of 10 from the currently held threshold of 50 or so thousand years to around one million years ago. This is between the origins of our genus, Homo, approximately 1.8 million years ago, and the emergence of Homo heidelbergensis. This reassessment of the available evidence would argue against a saltationist scenario - a single catastrophic mutation in a single individual gives rise to language - and for a gradualist one - accumulation of biological and cultural innovations that gave rise to language.

The archaeological record and recent genetic data reveals that modern humans spreading out of Africa interacted both genetically and culturally with both Neanderthals and Denisovans. If our bodies carry around some of their genes, say the researchers, perhaps our languages preserve traces of their languages as well. This would indicate that at least some of the observed linguistic diversity is due to these ancient encounters. Testing this theory by comparing the structural properties of the African and non-African languages, and detailed computer simulations of language spread would be possible.