Did Neanderthals have language? Let’s examine the evidence.
- Introduction and Terms Glossary
- Part 1: Language Genes
- Part 2: The Anatomy of Speech
- Part 3: The Anatomy of Hearing
This is the last part of my series on Neanderthal language. If you have not read the introduction to the series and the other sections, you can follow the links above. The introduction also includes a terms glossary.
In this post I will be doing just a few things, mostly summarizing what we’ve learned so far and addressing important points made on the other side of the debate.
What We’ve Learned
From the genetics we learned about the gene FOXP2 and the critical ways in which it is similar between humans and Neanderthals. The gene, which critically affects the human ability to produce language and the mouse ability to emit typical vocalizations, has been implicated both in normal speech production, as well as in vocal development and specialized orofacial control. We also know that Neanderthals possessed nearly all the same mutations in FOXP2 that humans do save for a single base-pair change at POU3F2. Although we don’t know the affects of this change, we can still conclude that the gene, which is very importantly associated in vocal development across vertebrates, was strongly selected in the last common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals.1
From our discussion of speech, we may not have learned much other than the fact that there are deep disagreements on the issue. Both of the reconstructions of the speech apparatus of the La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1 Neanderthal have been highly criticized, and while we can’t reject the one built by Boe et al. on an anatomical basis, the one by Lieberman is more than likely outdated. As it turns out, though, this is relatively unimportant. Based on the work of Tecumseh Fitch, we know that the descent of the larynx is not actually the most necessary trait for the development of speech, as even monkeys can produce their own systems of quantal vowels. Additional work by Fitch has shown that the descent of the larynx may have more implications for things other than speech, such as size exaggeration as a function of sexual selection in a number of mammalian species (note that males have deeper voices than females).2 What we can conclude is that Neanderthals could produce quantal vowels and were better anatomically developed for speech than other primates through other traits such as loss of vocal air sacs and the expansions of the thoracic vertebral canal.3
Hearing provided us with an ever-important piece of the puzzle that we could not retrieve from the hard tissue of the mouth and throat, namely that Neanderthals could perceive consonants. Whether this means they produced them is something different, as we don’t have the remains of Neanderthals tongues and lips, but since many primates can easily produce consonants and since hearing has been increased in this range in humans and Neanderthals as opposed to what we see in the other early hominins, we can take an educated guess that selection has acted on the Neanderthal ear to hear in this region which is critical for framing language into perceivable distinct units.4,5
Of course what I have presented you so far in the series has not gone without objections. In fact, some of the key critics of the evidence I have provided comes from people I have cited in the other blog posts. Most of these address specific lines of evidence, but other critiques have addressed the question head-on as one having little or no scientific basis.
One of the biggest critics was Philip Lieberman, the author of the first reconstruction of the La-Chapelle-aux-Saints 1 Neanderthal. Much of his career after the reconstruction was spent either defending the reconstruction or addressing issues in the subsequent one created by Boe et al. Did Lieberman think Neanderthals had language? The answer is difficult and somewhat indirect, but in his own words Lieberman stated in the very first paper that, “[Neanderthal] phonetic ability was, however, more advanced than those of present day nonhuman primates and his brain may have been sufficiently well developed for him to have established a language based on the speech signals at his command. The general level of Neanderthal culture is such that this limited phonetic ability was probably utilized and that some form of language existed,” but he then goes on to say, “Neanderthal man’s disappearance may have been a consequences of his linguistic deficiencies with respect to his sapiens competitors.” It seems Lieberman’s thoughts weren’t that Neanderthals lacked language, but that their linguistic ability was not as good as humans.6
One of the other current critics of the state of the debate is Tecumseh Fitch. I will clarify that it does not appear that Fitch actually disputes the idea that Neanderthals had language, his viewpoint is that the current evidence we have is rather non-conclusive. In regards to the anatomical reconstructions of the vocal apparatus, his work has argued that these are pretty much irrelevant as even monkeys can produce vowels. One of the most critical points he has made is in respect to the reconstructions of Neanderthal hearing. In his book The Evolution of Language, Fitch states that the audiograms of chimpanzee hearing that have been produced may actually be inaccurate because it appears that the audiograms exhibit hearing in a range that is indicative of hearing loss in the same range for humans.7 That said, Quam has reconstructed his own audiograms of chimpanzees using his skeletal method and the extension of the human hearing range in a region of consonants is absent in the chimpanzee audiograms, and reconstructing a new chimpanzee audiogram on a young chimpanzee should not be too hard to difficult in the future. But Fitch also questions the reconstruction method entirely based on the idea that it is the cochlea, not the middle ear, which determines which frequencies sound is heard at.8 Yet as I discussed last week, there is luckily substantial overlap between Neanderthal and human cochleas.9
As a comparative biologist and possibly the world’s foremost leading expert on bioacoustics, Fitch is not a nihilist in the language debate. He is extremely rigorous. If you will recall, his study on macaque vowel production was painstakingly based on hundreds of x-rays taken of a macaque performing dozens of motions with its mouth. In his own words, Fitch believes that the answers to the Neanderthal language debate will be in ancient DNA. Although I personally find the evidence from the hearing apparatus convincing enough, I agree with Fitch’s argument that the nail in the coffin will be by continuing our research on candidate genes for speech acquisition and comparing these to the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes.10
For some, the genetics do not matter, and the question of Neanderthal langauge is simply a question of speculation and story-telling. In response to a paper speculating on the mechanics of cultural-linguistic contact between Neanderthals and humans out of Max Planck11, MIT linguist Robert Berwick, former Harvard primatologist Marc Hauser, and leading paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall stated that in terms of the evidence available:
Dediu and Levinson’s extraordinary claims are not supported by the evidence they present. More significantly, we doubt that there could be any evidence to support such claims. At the archaeological level, our core linguistic competence does not fossilize. As for molecular evidence, we are nowhere near identifying the relevant “language genotype” and they provide no “language phenotype” to guide us.
I might agree with Berwick et al. that most of the claims provided by Dediu and Levison were speculative. In fact, the two authors provided multiple scenarios for their claims of which each were equally likely- they were, indeed, speculations. But I don’t believe that the claim that Neanderthals had language is completely speculative or falls in the realm of a just-so story (a term which was often employed by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould to refer to untestable hypotheses disguised as science).12
The authors of the study are in a camp of anthropology and linguistics which believes that language was a recent emergence in human history. Perhaps they have good reason to be skeptical. With language comes the availability to store information outside one’s head in a lexicon, the availability to identify kin by name without actually recognizing them, and the ability to share ideas rather than show them. Language has arguably given humankind its greatest tool for building our world. Contemporary postmodern theory even goes so far to argue that language, our texts, and our interpretation of the two are the substance from which the world is made. Its importance is tantamount, and the Neanderthals never got as far as us, after all.13
Many in this camp dispel the idea of Neanderthal language on the presupposition that Neanderthals lacked symbolic culture and therefore did not possess symbolic thinking. In a paper with Noam Chomsky, both Ian Tattersall and Robert Berwick hypothesized that because of this, language must have developed as recently as 200,000 years ago with the appearance of modern Homo sapiens in Africa.14 Yet as of this year we now know of cave paintings 20,000 years older than humanity’s entrance to Europe which must have been made by Neanderthals (this is the header image of this blog post).15 Some anthropologists have also argued that the idea of symmetry is inherently symbolic, and we see this all the way back in the Acheulean handaxes of Homo erectus.16
If I were to conclude anything about language, I would assume the conservative position of Lieberman. Language was there, but it was not human language. If I were to speak my mind, I would reasonably argue that the reason why Neanderthal culture changed so slowly had less to do with language per se and more to do with learning. Recall how changes in POU3F2 were associated with learning, not language? So many of our “language gene” candidates are more associated with autism and learning disabilities rather than linguistic competence. The extinction of Neanderthals most likely had more to do with a specialized body-brain plan adapted for a constant environmental, and being out-competed in other domains.17 After all, human populations have completely replaced other human populations in the past after periods of rapidly changing climate.18 What’s to say it didn’t happen then?
The most important aspect of research moving forward is going to be in the genetics. This task is going to have to involve a lot of population searching, a lot of medical genetics, and a lot of knockout studies. We are going to have to do with other genes what we did with FOXP2. We are also going to have to make a major link between developmental genetics and the genetics of Neanderthals and Denisovans. It’s going to be a lot of work, but it’s going to be worth it to help elucidate and finalize the question of whether Neanderthals had language.
The field might also benefit by finding more hybrids or Neanderthal-descended humans like the Oase 1 individual or the Lagar Velho child and comparing their language genes to both the Neanderthals and humans. Additionally, why not perform more experimental bioacoustics? The search there is not complete, and new osteometric analyses will only give us more information for making inferences about what Neanderthal soft anatomy looked like.
I want to thank you all for joining me on this blog, it was a fun weekend and evening project for me. I had hoped to talk about Neanderthal neurobiology, the general hypotheses behind the evolution of language, and Neanderthal symbolism, but I simply didn’t have the time- this isn’t a book I’m writing! In the future I will be posting content regarding other anthropological and biological lines of inquiry, and I hope you stick with me.
Like my blog? Want to support me? I am an unpaid graduate student who makes nothing right now aside from my writing, so any bit helps. Please consider supporting me on Patreon.
For further reading on the subject, you can refer to any of the references I have provided so far, in addition to some books I’ll list below. I may also include an extra blog post in a few days on the infamous BBC Neanderthal speech video.
The Evolution of Language – Tecumseh Fitch, 2010
Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origins of Language – Dean Falk, 2009
Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language – Robin Dunbar, 1996
The Language Instinct – Steven Pinker, 1994
1James, C., 2018. Did Neanderthals Have Language? Part 1: Language Genes. [Blog] Littlefoot’s Anthro Blog. Available at: https://culturologies.wordpress.com/2018/06/27/did-neanderthals-have-language-part-1-language-genes//.
2Fitch, W.T. and Reby, D., 2001. The descended larynx is not uniquely human. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 268(1477), pp.1669-1675.
3James, C., 2018. Did Neanderthals Have Language? Part 2: The Anatomy of Speech. [Blog] Littlefoot’s Anthro Blog. Available at: https://culturologies.wordpress.com/2018/07/06/did-neanderthals-have-language-part-2-the-anatomy-of-speech//.
6Lieberman, P. and Crelin, E.S., 1971. On the speech of Neanderthal man. Linguistic Inquiry, 2(2), pp.203-222.
7Fitch, W.T., 2010. The Evolution of Language.
8Hemilä, S., Nummela, S. and Reuter, T., 1995. What middle ear parameters tell about impedance matching and high frequency hearing. Hearing research, 85(1-2), pp.31-44.
9Spoor, F., Hublin, J.J., Braun, M. and Zonneveld, F., 2003. The bony labyrinth of Neanderthals. Journal of Human Evolution, 44(2), pp.141-165.
10Fitch, W.T., 2018. The Biology and Evolution of Speech: A Comparative Analysis. Annual Review of Linguistics, 4, pp.255-279.
11Dediu, D. and Levinson, S.C., 2013. On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neandertal linguistic capacities and its consequences. Frontiers in psychology, 4, p.397.
12Berwick, R.C., Hauser, M. and Tattersall, I., 2013. Neanderthal language? Just-so stories take center stage. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, p.671.
13Tallis, R., 2016. Not Saussure: a critique of post-Saussurean literary theory. Springer.
14Bolhuis, J.J., Tattersall, I., Chomsky, N. and Berwick, R.C., 2014. How could language have evolved?. PLoS Biology, 12(8), p.e1001934.
15Hoffmann, D.L., Standish, C.D., Pike, A.W., García-Diez, M., Pettitt, P.B., Angelucci, D.E., Villaverde, V., Zapata, J., Milton, J.A., Alcolea-González, J. and Cantalejo-Duarte, P., 2018. Dates for Neanderthal art and symbolic behaviour are reliable. Nature Ecology & Evolution, p.1.
16Balter, M., 2009. On the origin of art and symbolism. Science, 323(5915), pp.709-711.
17Banks, W.E., d’Errico, F., Peterson, A.T., Kageyama, M., Sima, A. and Sánchez-Goñi, M.F., 2008. Neanderthal extinction by competitive exclusion. PLoS One, 3(12), p.e3972.
18Malmström, H., Gilbert, M.T.P., Thomas, M.G., Brandström, M., Storå, J., Molnar, P., Andersen, P.K., Bendixen, C., Holmlund, G., Götherström, A. and Willerslev, E., 2009. Ancient DNA reveals lack of continuity between neolithic hunter-gatherers and contemporary Scandinavians. Current Biology, 19(20), pp.1758-1762.