Saturday, 13 July 2013

Neanderthal Language: did we once have a linguistic cousin?

In a recent paper ("On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neandertal linguistic capacities and its consequences"), Dan Dediu and Stephen Levinson argue that modern language was a feature of both Neanderthals and modern humans, and therefore of our common ancestor as well.  This takes their date for the origin of language to around 4-500,000 years ago at least, far beyond the common (though what I consider as very conservative!) view that language emerged around 100,000 years ago.

Illustration of hypothesized dates and
communication systems, shown alongside
tool technologies and hominin species 
Whether or not Neanderthals had complex language, or any form of complex communication system such as a protolanguage, has been debated for decades.  More and more though, the evidence seems to bolster the idea that our very close cousins were more similar to us than the classical brutish view, both cognitively as well as behaviourally.

In my previous post "Are we being a bit unfair to Neanderthals?", I discussed the tendency for people to be quite negative when thinking about Neanderthals, to compare their culture to more modern examples of our own, and scorn them as "the other" - languageless, dumb, and trying-to-be-human-but-not-quite-getting-it.  It's an unbalanced view, when humans and Neanderthals had broadly similar behavioural and cultural signature in the record, especially when you look at contemporary examples in the record.

Some might say that the classic image of the Neanderthal has had a makeover - we now know that sometimes, some of them buried their dead.  Sometimes, some of them pierced teeth or shells, and used red ochre and black manganese as colourants.  Often, they made beautiful stone tools with great skill and knowledge of flint working.  Sometimes they interbred with modern humans.

But still, the nul hypothesis for some has remained that Neanderthals are crap versions of humans.  Equally, if you are going to attribute intelligence to a species, don't you also need evidence to attribute them with a lack of intelligence?

Now, with evidence of interbreeding between the species, and the Neanderthal genome sequenced, it's harder to think of Neanderthals so simply as 'the other'.  Dediu and Levinson's article doesn't contain the Neanderthal racism I often find myself complaining about.

Most interesting and unique about their article is the implications for studying language evolution and linguistics, suggesting for example,
the present-day linguistic diversity might better reflect the properties of the design space for language and not just the vagaries of history, and could also contain traces of the languages spoken by other human forms such as the Neandertals.
It's a great article synthesizing lots of relevant information on Neanderthals as well as language origins research, and I recommend it as a good read for anyone with an interest!


  1. The genetic differences between modern humans and Neanderthals referred to in the article relate not only to skin, eye, skeleton, dentation, etc. (helping to explain the very different 'look' of the Neanderthal), but also to language and brain development, including brain plasticity. (There is also the brain structure issue – e.g. the occipital 'bun'.)

    I would infer from this that it is very unlikely that they had anything like modern language. The authors themselves concede that modern humans "may outstrip them in some parameters (perhaps range of speech sounds or rapidity of speech, complexity of syntax, size of vocabularies, or the like)." I'd be tempted to go a bit further.

    But one has to keep an open mind on all this. And the global picture is getting more complicated, it seems (e.g. Homo floresiensis).

    1. But why is being different from humans evidence for a lack of language? Shouldn't evidence for or against language come from the behaviour we interpret them to exhibit in the material record instead?

    2. You're right that the differences don't provide evidence that Neanderthals did not have their own unique languages, but they do make it less likely that they had languages like ours, don't you think?

      There are two interrelated questions here, as I see it: Neanderthals' capacity for language; and the question of how they actually communicated (and to what level of sophistication, etc.). Genetic and brain and other relevant body structure evidence addresses primarily the former question, whereas the sort of evidence you are presumably dealing with (I look forward to reading a summary of your ideas) has its focus on the latter.

      The situation is complicated by the possibility that Neanderthals may have had the capacity to learn modern complex languages developed by other populations, but not to spontaneously develop such a language. (A bit like the way children with certain language disorders don't pick up language naturally, but have to learn it slowly and deliberately.)


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