Did Neanderthals Have Language? Introduction and Terms Glossary

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Ungh, graggle, grok, ungh grok graggle.” – Grok the Neanderthal, 50,000 BCE

Welcome to my short series on Neanderthal language. This is the introduction and glossary- feel free to bookmark this in your tweets, in your homepage, wherever if you wish to follow along. I will post updates and link you to new parts as they come out:

Part 1: Language Genes
Part 2: The Anatomy of Speech
Part 3: The Anatomy of Hearing
Part 4: Speculations and Moving Forward

Introduction

It has come to my attention that despite being trained in bioacoustics and despite my PhD dissertation topic being on primate acoustics and audition that I rarely ever talk about the subject on my blog or on Twitter. If you were to scroll through my feed, you probably wouldn’t guess that this is what I study. This is honestly because the focus of my research is so niche right now that it probably would not be that interesting to people, but the other day a friend of mine asked me my opinion on a question that is interesting when we were out at a bar that I’ve been thinking about:

Do you think Neanderthals had language?

Yes…er…no…er…eh probably/maybe. I’m sure all four of my readers have noted my radio silence on the blog, and I apologize for that. I’ve been busy working up in the lab in Boston leaving my site somewhat barren, so I thought as a short series over the next couple of weeks I might try and get to the root of this question from the perspective of genetics, anatomy, and acoustics. I started it out as one blog post, but realized there is a lot to cover, so I am going to do these sequentially. There will probably be four, and at the end I might do a blog post of suggestions and resources for anyone who is interested in exploring this further.

If you want the short story, I believe Neanderthals had language. There are a number of reasons to believe that they possessed it, but it was likely radically different from human language today. I also think that there are some critical gaps in our understanding of language evolution that need to be filled before we call it a day on this subject.

For this first part of the blog, I am just going to shortly introduce some terms that you might run into. I will also link each subsequent part of this blog discussion at the top of this post, and each subsequent one will include a link to this glossary in it. If you think anything is wrong, just send me a message @LTF_01 on Twitter.

Genetics Glossary:

  • DNA: Deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA is a double-stranded molecule composed of repetitive sequences of chemicals called nucleotides. These are adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine, and each are respectively labelled by their beginning letter (AGCT).
  • Gene: A sequence of DNA that codes for molecules and proteins.
  • Protein: A functional molecule formed by one or more chains of amino acids that are coded by your DNA.
  • Point Mutation: When a mutation takes place either through the replacement, deletion, or insertion of a single nucleotide.
  • Genotype: This is the genetic makeup of an individual, your sequence of DNA.
  • Phenotype: This is the result of the genotype. It is the observable traits that an organism has.
  • Selective Sweep: A process guided by strong selection on a trait which eliminates variation at specific nucleotides on a gene, along with those around it.
  • Phylogeny: A tree showing the evolutionary relationship between a set of organisms. This can be based on morphology or genetics.
  • Knockout Study: A study performed on mice whereby the function of a gene is altered either by the insertion of a new gene or the complete disruption of the original. These allow scientists to understand the functions of specific genes.

Anatomical Glossary:

  • Speech Appartus
    An illustration of the human speech apparatus. I have circled the hyoid with a black, opaque circle.

    Larynx: This is your voicebox, located below and behind your pharynx in your throat.

  • Pharynx: This is the area of the throat immediately behind the mouth at the base of your tongue and above the larynx.
  • Trachea: Your wind pipe, which leads to your lungs.
  • Hyoid Bone: A small, horseshoe shaped bone that is located above the larynx that is important for muscle attachments in the throat. The human hyoid is differently shaped than the hyoid of other apes.
  • Ossicles: The bones of the middle ear consisting of the malleus, incus, and stapes. These are used to transmit sound from your eardrum to your cochlea (inner ear). They are the smallest bones in the human body.

Phonetics Glossary:

  • Phoneme: A perceptually distinct unit of sound in human speech.
  • Frequency (Hertz): We use this as a measurement of pitch. A Hertz is defined as one cycle per second. A kilohertz (kHz) would be 1,000 oscillations of a soundwave per second. Humans without hearing loss can typically hear sounds ranging up to 20kHz.
  • Fundamental Frequency: The fundamental frequency is the lowest frequency of a harmonic sequence.
  • formants
    A spectrograph I made highlighting the different frequencies of a long vowel. The fundamental is the lowest frequency seen, and each separate red line constitutes a formant.

    Formant Frequency: Formants are additional frequencies caused by resonance in the vocal tract. When humans speak, several different frequencies are typically emitted, each separate one is known as a formant. The lowest formant is called the F1, the second lowest is F2, third is F3, etc. Listening to the difference between formants is how humans discriminate between separate vowels.

  • Vowel: A sound typically made with the mouth open.
  • Consonant: A sound made by blocking air as it comes out of the mouth.
  • Quantal Vowel: The quantal vowels are /a/, /i/, and /u/. Nearly all languages have these vowels.
  • Quantal Theory: A theory proposed by Ken Stevens in 1972 which argued that the near-universal presence of certain vowels in speech is due to the ease by which they are produced by humans.
  • Dispersion Theory: A theory proposed by Johan Liljencrants and Björn Lindblom, also in 1972, which argued that the presence of quantal vowels is due to the fact that they occupy the maximum distance from one another in phonetic space.

Fossils:

  • Australopithecus africanus: A fossil hominin from South Africa dating from about 3.3 to 2.1 million years ago, this is typically later than when Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis is found in East Africa.
  • Paranthropus robustus: A robust australopithecine also from Southern Africa which lives from about 2 to 1.2 million years ago. It is noted for its robust skull which was likely an adaptation for its diet. This species was probably not on the lineage to Homo.
  • Archaic humans: I will generally be using this term to refer to Neanderthals and Denisovans, which is a species closely related to Neanderthals only known from its DNA.

    la chapelle aux saints 1
    The Old Man of La Chapelle, La Chapelle-aux-Saints
  • La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1: A nearly complete Neanderthal skeleton dating from around 50,000 years ago discovered in France in 1908. This fossil is pretty important for discussions about Neanderthal speech, as most of the reconstructions of the Neanderthal vocal tract have been based on it.
  • Sima de Los Huesos Hominins: A group of approximately 28 fossil individuals found in a cave site in Atapuerca Spain in 1984 which are dated to around 400,000 years ago. Bones excavated from these individuals included ossicles and several hyoids. These fossils are usually either categorized as Neanderthals or Homo heidelbergensis. Ancient DNA was obtained from two individuals at this site.

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