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
The Max Planck
Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen 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 Neanderthals 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 archaeological discoveries 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 cognitive capacities and culture were comparable
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 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 linguistic diversity 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.