Neanderthals shared speech and language with modern humans, study suggests

July 9, 2013

Fast-accumulating data seem to indicate that our close cousins, the Neanderthals, were much more similar to us than imagined even a decade ago. But did they have anything like modern speech and language? And if so, what are the implications for understanding present-day linguistic diversity? The MPI for Psycholinguistics researchers Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson argue in their paper in Frontiers in Language Sciences that modern language and speech can be traced back to the last common ancestor we shared with the Neandertals roughly half a million years ago.

The Neanderthals have fascinated both the academic world and the general public ever since their discovery almost 200 years ago. Initially thought to be subhuman brutes incapable of anything but the most primitive of grunts, they were a successful form of humanity inhabiting vast swathes of western Eurasia for several hundreds of thousands of years, during harsh ages and milder interglacial periods. We knew that they were our closest cousins, sharing a common ancestor with us around half a million years ago (probably Homo heidelbergensis), but it was unclear what their cognitive capacities were like, or why modern humans succeeded in replacing them after thousands of years of cohabitation. Recently, due to new palaeoanthropological and and the reassessment of older data, but especially to the availability of ancient DNA, we have started to realise that their fate was much more intertwined with ours and that, far from being slow brutes, their 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 their genome). Their interpretation of the intrinsically ambiguous and scant evidence goes against the scenario usually assumed by most language scientists, namely that of a sudden and recent emergence of modernity, presumably due to a single – or very few – genetic mutations. This pushes back the origins of modern language by a factor of 10 from the often-cited 50 or so thousand years, to around a million years ago – somewhere between the origins of our genus, Homo, some 1.8 million years ago, and the emergence of Homo heidelbergensis. This reassessment of the evidence goes against a saltationist scenario where a single catastrophic mutation in a single individual would suddenly give rise to language, and suggests that a gradual accumulation of biological and cultural innovations is much more plausible.

Interestingly, given that we know from the archaeological record and recent genetic data that the modern humans spreading out of Africa interacted both genetically and culturally with the Neanderthals and Denisovans, then just as our bodies carry around some of their genes, maybe our languages preserve traces of their languages too. This would mean that at least some of the observed is due to these ancient encounters, an idea testable by comparing the structural properties of the African and non-African languages, and by detailed computer simulations of language spread.

Explore further: Study shows ancient relations between language families

More information: Dediu, D., & Levinson, S. C. On the antiquity of language: The reinterpretation of Neanderthal linguistic capacities and its consequences. Frontiers in Language Sciences, 4: 397. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00397

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3.7 / 5 (10) Jul 09, 2013
But did they have anything like modern speech and language?

Yes... but with a Texas accent
5 / 5 (2) Jul 09, 2013
Finally! I have waited for a "many genes" theory, same as on height, mass and brain volume & capacity.

That Levinson is an author isn't a problem but a boon. He may have some far out hypotheses (see A. adiba, I think it is the same Levinson), but he has also a lot of know how.

Funny how the first neanderthals fossils, marked with disease, has come to dominate the early impression. They have larger brain cases, some of them are long, they have much the same behavioral traits, et cetera.

Also fun to see how Out Of Africa has its corresponding language (phoneme) theory, while there is evidence that admixture could (in the genome case, would) have happened.

Oh, and nice article!
5 / 5 (3) Jul 09, 2013
@GU: That's what I've been saying over at Ars! Their many broken and healed bones, which tells of spear or shorter length rustling with their prey, as well as their now known to be comparatively gaudy dresses, tells us neanderthals were the showy rodeo cowboys of their time.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 09, 2013
I think history is replete with good theories that that went 'against the grain' of their time...maybe this is another. Certainly seems more logical than some sudden 'jolt' in DNA producing a mutation. The pdf article from the language website should be interesting.
'...tells us neanderthals were the showy rodeo cowboys of their time.' If that is true then I suspect they were very adaptable too but then this would require a good answer as to why they are not around today. Is it possible that there was some interbreeding between homo and neanderthals? Perhaps neanderthal DNA may have been less dominant that homo DNA and simply melded with homo rather than sudenly vanishing.
1 / 5 (6) Jul 09, 2013
Several years ago scientists reported that the genetic evolution governing speech occurred in a divergence no more than 6000 years ago, not millions of years! Who is right?
5 / 5 (1) Jul 10, 2013
hrfJC, I very much doubt that figure of 6000 years ago because the Sumerians had a very organised society at least by 2500BC and probably long before that via tribes that joined and eventually became known as Sumer. So this doesn't leave very much to the 6000 years ago. In addition to that there is evidence that the Australasian Aborigine developed a musical type of commuication more than 10,000 years ago.
The linguistic problem is very complex and many 'experts' disagree. For example marks on bones and other objects, apparently more than 20,000 years old have been described as organised indication of communication by some and absolutely denied by others. Some maintain that 'cup marks' on ancient stones describe the night sky and used as a 'language'.
Some scientists from Georgia claim that ancient Sumerian goes back to 5000 years BC so that would put Sumer on a intellectual level much earlier than is generally accepted.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 11, 2013
hrFJC is it possible you are getting speech mixed up with writing?

It is quite difficult to confirm speech in the past but I would think it would predate writing by millions of years and their is evidence of quite complex societies with ruins and archaeological evidence that people lived in communities over 50,000 years ago and I would find it difficult to believe we would be living in huts or painting caves before we we could talk.
2 / 5 (2) Jul 11, 2013
jsa09, this depends how 'speechis defined '. Some experts define communities being organised when 5000 people they live together. So one has to assume some kind of standard for speech.
Say you are in the forest club in hand chasing some animal intended to be your next meal. During the 'hand to club' fight the animal bites you and you shout out 'AaaaaH' or 'Owwwww'. I imagine anyone following would know what the shout indicated. This might rate as some form of (unintended, natural) commuication which others understood but would you call it speech? At the other extreme it is obvious that our children learn to talk before they learn to write because parents teach them. But who taught the first speeking child? Again what seems to be obvious is that it was a gradual build up of terminology and being passed on.
Now if this were true then it would seem that paintings would come before speech. You could draw your animal chase but it would take quite a vocabulary to say it in words.
1 / 5 (4) Jul 11, 2013
H. Sap is at it again.
He just cannot bring himself to believe that he is inferior to us .
Look at that picture. It looks like a Nazi depiction of a Jew.
Let us get this straight Homo self-styled "sapiens", you are all going to die out.
That was a bit churlish of me.
Anyhow, thanks for the civilization, suckers.
2.6 / 5 (5) Jul 12, 2013
But did they have anything like modern speech and language?

Yes... but with a Texas accent

I'm almost certain they knew the word 'turd'...
1.4 / 5 (10) Jul 12, 2013
Neanderthals were far more advanced then us, untill very recent in fact, long after the great pole shift of 10500 bc, or believe your brainwashers
1 / 5 (9) Jul 12, 2013
For instance when the brainwashers suggest that binding a babys skull has produced "elongated skulls" with nearly twice the brain capacity of normal, it seems that such a statement of pathetic nonsense is all the proof needed.

Sheeple (a portmanteau of "sheep" and "people") is a term in which people are likened to sheep, a herd animal. The term is used to describe those who voluntarily acquiesce to a suggestion without critical analysis or research.

Bla bla bla
1 / 5 (6) Jul 12, 2013
But did they have anything like modern speech and language?

Yes... but with a Texas accent

I'm almost certain they knew the word 'turd'...

Only if you existed back then, turd.
1 / 5 (6) Jul 12, 2013
I know that the politically correct scientists are denying it, but IMO the redheads are descendants of Neanderthals. We have them all around us.

Hey...hey... that's an insult to Neanderthals.
1 / 5 (7) Jul 13, 2013
You see ancient Neanderthal skulls are measured and DNAed and millions are spent but not on the large elongated skulls which disappear from the record just hundreds of years ago, oh no, not one DNA test. No science pulls its hat down over its eyes and walks away quick like a criminal who sees a cop coming round the corner.
3.3 / 5 (7) Jul 13, 2013
Neanderthals were far more advanced then us, untill very recent in fact, long after the great pole shift of 10500 bc, or believe your brainwashers

Your semi-coherent posts about catastrophic pole shifts and brainwashed 'sheeple' are the scientific equivalent of playing Shift My Own Pole. In this case, too much of it might make you blind to reality.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 15, 2013
do the Neanderthals have a website I can check out? link anyone?
2 / 5 (1) Jul 15, 2013
Seems logical to me. Humans are social animals. Communication.. or the need to communicate, came with the bigger brain.
Yet, animals have probably been signaling for a very long time. What is the difference between the flick of a tail and a verbal warning?
not rated yet Jul 21, 2013
I have known that Neanderthals had language for some time. Neanderthals cared for members of their community with major physical impairments as revealed with "the old man Aux La Chappell" and those found in Iraq's Shanidar Cave. In order for these Neanderthals to survive they must have use of some language, although not to the extent of modern humans.

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