Could Neanderthals Speak? The Ongoing Debate Over Neanderthal Language

By Bridget Alex | November 5, 2018 4:26 pm
human neanderthal skulls

A comparison of skulls from a human (left) and a Neanderthal (right). (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Did Neanderthals have language? Before trying to answer that, I should admit my bias: I’m team Neanderthal. As an anthropologist who studies our evolutionary cousins, I’ve seen plenty of evidence suggesting Neanderthals were competent, complex, social creatures. In light of their apparent cognitive abilities, I’m inclined to believe they had language.

But I can’t prove it, and no one else can, either. To date, there’s no evidence that Neanderthals developed writing, so language, if it existed, would have been verbal. Unlike writing, spoken languages leave no physical trace behind. Our words vanish as soon as they’re spoken.

The best researchers can do is to analyze Neanderthal fossils, artifacts and genes, looking for physical and cognitive traits considered necessary for language. And even after scrutinizing this same body of evidence, experts have come to different conclusions: Some say language is unique to our species, Homo sapiens; others contend Neanderthals also had the gift of gab. So, while the question remains up in the air, it’s not for lack of trying. Here’s all the evidence we have.

Clarifying the Question

“Really the debate is about what language is,” says Dan Dediu, an evolutionary linguist (who is also team Neanderthal).

Part of the reason scientists disagree about Neanderthal language is because there are different definitions of language itself. Without straying too far into academic debates over the nature of language, let’s just say there are broad and narrow theories when it comes to what actually constitutes language.

A broad view defines language as a communication system in which arbitrary symbols (usually sounds) hold specific meanings, but are not fixed or finite. Words can be invented, learned, altered and combined to convey anything you can think.

Narrow definitions focus on syntax and recursion, structural properties shared by all human languages today. These both refer broadly to the set of rules that guides how statements can be formulated in any given language, and they are thought to be hardwired into our brains. By this view language is “a computational cognitive mechanism that has hierarchical syntactic structure at its core,” in the words of biologist Johan Bolhuis and colleagues.

inner ears

A comparison of the inner ears of various hominin and primate species. (Credit: Stoessel et al.)

Proponents of narrow definitions tend to argue that language evolved exclusively in Homo sapiens as recently as 100,000 years ago. With a broader definition, though, it’s easier to posit language emerging earlier in our evolutionary history, even among other species of the human family tree.

It’s also worth clarifying the difference between speech and language. Although most languages today are spoken, they can also be signed or perceived through touch. Nevertheless, many studies claiming to deal with Neanderthal language actually analyze speech capacity. This is because speech influences skeletal anatomy and is therefore possible to infer from fossils. And, considering the overwhelming majority of human languages are speech-based, it’s reasonable to assume Neanderthal language was too (if they had language).

Terminology aside, what we really want to know is if Neanderthals communicated like living humans. Would a Neanderthal child, raised in a modern human family, learn their language? Could a linguist, sent 60,000 years into the past, interpret Neanderthal language?

Proxies for Language

Short of inventing a time machine, researchers must infer Neanderthal linguistic capabilities from the remains they left behind. It’s often said that “language doesn’t fossilize”. But what do preserve are language proxies — bones, artifacts and DNA that indicate the presence of language or speech. While no single line of evidence is sufficiently convincing, the preponderance of evidence allows researchers to hypothesize about Neanderthal language.

Let’s begin with bones. Speech and language are mostly soft-tissue operations, requiring organs like the tongue, diaphragm and brain that rarely preserve. However, producing and hearing speech influences some enduring aspects of our skeletons too, including the hyoid bone, ear ossicles and the portion of the spinal canal that holds nerves involved in precisely controlling breathing. Studies have found these features are very similar between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, but more primitive and ape-like in earlier hominins like Australopiths.

hyoid bone

The hyoid bone viewed superiorly in humans (left), Neanderthals (center), and chimpanzees (right). (Credit: Steele et al.)

Based on these results, most researchers agree Neanderthals were capable of emitting and hearing complex vocalizations. However, they disagree over the implications. While some consider the findings indicative of speech-based language in Neanderthals, others propose these features could have evolved for other reasons, like singing. Neanderthals may have lacked the cognitive abilities for language, but possessed the physical anatomy for musical calls to attract mates or sooth infants.

To assess if Neanderthals had the brains for language, researchers usually rely on proxies from the archaeological record — artifacts that required the same cognitive prerequisites as language, such as hierarchical organization or abstract symbolic thought. The latter is necessary to encode sounds with meanings and evidenced by artifacts like beads and cave paintings.

So did Neanderthals make those things? Eh, well, maybe. A few cases of Neanderthal ornaments and paintings have been reported, but are so rare that researchers question their authorship and antiquity. However, Neanderthals could have been symbolic in other ways. For instance, at many Neanderthal sites, archaeologists have found butchered wing bones from birds of prey. This could indicate Neanderthals adorned themselves with feathers (which did not preserve) imbued with symbolic meaning.

What DNA Has to Say

The newest data thrown into the mix comes from ancient DNA (aDNA). “I find it both the most convincing and the hardest to interpret,” says Dediu, a scientist with the Dynamique du Langage laboratory in Lyon, France.

The convincing aspect is that ancient genomes have shown Neanderthals and Homo sapiens interbred in several periods during the past 200,000 years. Realizing the groups were biologically and behaviorally similar enough to produce successful offspring has helped many anthropologists believe Neanderthals must have been capable of language.

human neanderthal interbreeding

A chart showing various interbreeding events between Homo sapiens and other hominin species. (Credit: Dediu and Levinson)

What’s harder to determine is whether the differences in DNA between us and them had an effect on language abilities. “We don’t understand very well the genetics of cognitive abilities, the genetics of speech [and] language,” Dediu explains.

Geneticists can compare the genomes of Neanderthals and modern humans, letter-by-letter, or gene-by-gene, but we don’t know how this code confers language ability. Some genes, like FOXP2, are definitely involved, as living people with altered versions experience language impairments. Of the major “language associated” genes thus far identified, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens have matching versions. However, some differences have been found in regulatory DNA, which controls where (in which cells), when (during development) and how much putative language genes activate. In sum, DNA may hold answers to Neanderthal language ability, but we don’t yet know how to read it.

The question of Neanderthal language remains an open debate. If they lacked it, language may be unique to Homo sapiens. If they had it, language was likely present at least since Neanderthals and modern humans shared a common ancestor, over 500,000 years ago.

As scholar Sverker Johansson put it, “Once upon a time our ancestors had no language, and today all people do.” Determining Neanderthal language capabilities will help us understand when and how our incredible communicative abilities emerged.

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  • OWilson

    Without getting into a debate about the definition of “language”, it is logical to assume that Neanderthals had the ability to communicate with each other.

    They lived together for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, and made tools, weapons and hunted in groups.

    Animals are defined by the ability to communicate. Even we humans can easily understand the cry of a hungry nestling, a lost cub separated from its mother, or the warning bark of a watchdog.

    Language evolved slowly, and even today some remote humans have no written language, as such.

    • Niemand

      Exactly! They also buried their dead, took care of their disabled, appreciated beauty, and had children with us. They are of the same species, and should universally be acknowledged as such: h. sapiens neandertalensis.

      The very notion, exhibited by Ms Alex, above, that the Neandertal people weren’t “human” is pernicious and the source of 90% or so of humankind’s troubles. Every ratty little tribe called themselves “people” while denying that others had an equal claim to the label.

      That even many people in science are afflicted with that “distancing” disorder should tell us that our chances of surviving the pan-extinction now going on are slim unless we grow up Really Really Fast.

      • OWilson

        That’s not going to happen anytime soon.

        “Beliefs” are the source of most human’s problems.

        Denial of logic and empirical facts automatically follows!

        • Michael Cleveland

          Indeed. It is the equation of “belief” with fact or truth that gets us in trouble every time. This particular slash through the equals sign is something we don’t teach nearly well enough in school.

      • crankedyank

        I agree completely and find it quite irritating to see Neanderthals referred to in contradistinction to “humans.”

        • Michael Cleveland

          The contradistinction is to “Modern humans.”

        • crankedyank

          That is what it should be. It seems many now equate the term “human” with “modern human.”

          • Michael Cleveland

            In the context of most discussions, that would be quite correct, as we are the only humans remaining. In the context of this discussion, it would be incorrect, as the genus is generally accepted to have begun with Australopithicus, and certainly includes ergaster, erectus, heidelbergensis, et al. Sometimes context is everything.

      • Michael Cleveland

        Neanderthals were most definitely not of the same species, but were of the same genus. H. sapiens Neanderthalensis makes no sense taxonomically. H. is the genus for human. Neanderthals were a species of humans [bizarre: I can’t spell out h. The site flags it and won’t let it post].
        Sapiens are a species of humans. But make no mistake, they are different species: H. neanderthalensis, and H. sapiens.

        • Niemand

          Nope, we interbred with them, making us of the same species.

          • Michael Cleveland

            Nonsense. We share a percentage of DNA with Neanderthal that is less than 1 percent more than we share with chimpanzees.

          • Michael Cleveland

            Modern humans of primarily European descent carry about 1.6% Neanderthal DNA (some sources say 1-4%, but the consensus seems to be about 1.6% for modern humans of European descent); Asians as much as a percent more. A study in 2012 [Neves, Armando; Serva, Maurizio, “Extremely Rare Interbreeding Events Can Explain Neanderthal DNA in Living Humans”] showed that the current percentage of DNA in modern humans could be explained by successful reproductive events as infrequently as once every 77 generations. With so little Neanderthal DNA, we are not the same species. For all the loose similarity, the morphological differences are very great. Other DNA studies have shown that not all such breeding events could have produced reproductively viable offspring. In other words, some of the offspring that resulted from the admixture of Neanderthal and sapiens genes would have been “mules,” i.e., infertile. No, they are not the same species. The current “one big happy family” fad could not be more wrong. There is virtually no evidence that there was extensive socialization between the two species.

          • Niemand

            Other DNA studies have shown that not all such breeding events could have produced reproductively viable offspring. In other words, some of the offspring that resulted from the admixture
            of Neanderthal and sapiens genes would have been “mules,” i.e.,
            infertile.

            Since we know that many breeding attempts between obvious members of the same species fail to produce offspring, and we certainly do have Neandertal DNA, it’s not reasonable to claim what you’re claiming, though that kind of exceptionalist distancing remains widespread, especially among the hard-of-thinking, some of whom still assert in apparent seriousness that Black people are a different and lesser species!

          • Michael Cleveland

            Now go back and read what I actually said. Offended? I am outraged. No one has said anything about black people or any other race here, except you. Your argument is exactly why I have said elsewhere that these studies are influenced by political correctness, and to hell with the real science. For the record, all modern humans are of the same species, and only an idiot would bring race into the question. At the moment, that includes you. Go crawl back under your rock. BTW, PC is ALWAYS wrong, and this kind of nonsense is exactly why.

          • Niemand

            You take an example of exceptionalist distancing
            personally? Why?

          • Michael Cleveland

            I don’t have to take it personally to be outraged by it, but I read your intent. It has nothing to do with what you call “exceptionalist distancing.” It has to do with other people defining what constitutes “right thinking.” You come in here and argue against an established scientific definition because you don’t fully understand the nature of inter-species breeding, and you have a contrary opinion that you will hold up against that definition until you are blue in the face, because you prefer your own ignorance to any science that might contravene it. That’s fine, so long as you at least attempt to support your argument with something that resembles reason. But here’s where we are:

            The nicey-nice one-big-happy-family crowd want us to believe that Neanderthal and Sapiens lived together in some kind of harmony for at least a significant part of the 130,000 years or so they lived in relatively close proximity. That’s the current “isn’t that nice” view of Neanderthal/Sapiens relations (at least some part of that the fault of the media who persist in perpetuating it). Unfortunately for that view (and what I’ve been trying to point out, if you would bother to read what I actually wrote), there is no evidence whatsoever for that kind of ongoing, long-term close social connection between the two species, and there is considerable evidence against it. Some interbreeding with viable offspring, yes, but demonstrably at very infrequent intervals. The percentage of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans of European ancestry, which is where this proximity was greatest for the longest time, is tiny; so miniscule that it contraindicates long term or frequent social cohabitation between the species. Being a member of the PC thought police, you take exception by bringing racism into the argument by inference, innuendo, and/or insinuation in lieu of outright accusation, so you can plead innocence (“it’s what somebody else thinks”). Damn right I’m outraged. I’m tired of groups of people wanting to dictate–under threat of stigma–how other people should think. PC is never right, for many reasons–many of them the same reasons that racism is never right–but even if for no other, because it’s intentions are wrong, and it’s very nearly always demanded from a position of self-congratulatory ignorance. It is even more egregious when it seeks to subvert science. Here’s one final thought to mull over in the context of socialization: there are many possible reasons for this, but it is true that none–I repeat, none–of the Neanderthal DNA found so far in modern humans is mitochondrial. Leaving you with that thought to ponder, I’m done with this.

          • Michael Cleveland

            I don’t have to take it personally to be outraged by it, but I read your intent. It has nothing to do with what you call “exceptionalist distancing.” It has to do with other people defining what constitutes “right thinking.” You come in here and argue against an established scientific definition because you don’t fully understand the nature of inter-species breeding, and you have a contrary opinion that you will hold up against that definition until you are blue in the face, because you prefer your own ignorance to any science that might contravene it. That’s fine, so long as you at least attempt to support your argument with something that resembles reason. But here’s where we are:

            The nicey-nice one-big-happy-family crowd want us to believe that Neanderthal and Sapiens lived together in some kind of harmony for at least a significant part of the 130,000 years or so they lived in relatively close proximity. That’s the current “isn’t that nice” view of Neanderthal/Sapiens relations (at least some part of that the fault of the media who persist in perpetuating it). Unfortunately for that view (and what I’ve been trying to point out, if you would bother to read what I actually wrote), there is no evidence whatsoever for that kind of ongoing, long-term close social connection between the two species, and there is considerable evidence against it. Some interbreeding with viable offspring, yes, but demonstrably at very infrequent intervals. The percentage of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans of European ancestry, which is where this proximity was greatest for the longest time, is tiny; so miniscule that it contraindicates long term or frequent social cohabitation between the species. Being a member of the PC thought police, you take exception by bringing racism into the argument by inference, innuendo, and/or insinuation in lieu of outright accusation, so you can plead innocence (“it’s what somebody else thinks”). Damn right I’m outraged. I’m tired of groups of people wanting to dictate–under threat of stigma–how other people should think. PC is never right, for many reasons–many of them the same reasons that racism is never right–but even if for no other, because it’s intentions are wrong, and it’s very nearly always demanded from a position of self-congratulatory ignorance. It is even more egregious when it seeks to subvert science. Here’s one final thought to mull over in the context of socialization: there are many possible reasons for this, but it is true that none–I repeat, none–of the Neanderthal DNA found so far in modern humans is mitochondrial. Leaving you with that thought to ponder, I’m done with this.

          • Michael Cleveland

            Twice now I’ve answered this, and the answer keeps disappearing. Why do you suppose that is?

          • Niemand

            No clue. It’s certainly not of my doing. Why do my innocuous answers get permanently waitlisted? Again: no clue.

          • Michael Cleveland

            I don’t have to take it personally to be outraged by it, but I read your intent. You come in here and argue against an established scientific definition because you don’t fully understand the nature of inter-species breeding, and you have a contrary opinion that you will hold up against that vetted and fully accepted definition until you are blue in the face, because you prefer your own ignorance to any science that might contravene it. That’s fine, so long as you at least attempt to support your argument with something that resembles reason. But here’s where we are:

            The nicey-nice one-big-happy-family crowd want us to believe that Neanderthal and Sapiens lived together in some kind of harmony for at least a significant part of the 130,000 years or so they lived in relatively close proximity. That’s the current “isn’t that nice” view of Neanderthal/Sapiens relations (at least some part of that the fault of the media who leap on any opportunity to perpetuate it). Unfortunately for that view (and what I’ve been trying to point out, if you would bother to read what I actually wrote), there is no evidence whatsoever for that kind of ongoing, long-term close social connection between the two species, and there is considerable evidence against it. Some interbreeding with viable offspring, yes, but demonstrably very infrequent. The percentage of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans of European ancestry, which is where this proximity was greatest for the longest time, is tiny; so miniscule that it contraindicates long term or frequent social cohabitation between the species. Being a member of the PC thought police, you take exception by bringing the specter of racism into the argument, offering a thinly veiled simile (“…that kind of exceptionalist distancing”), suggesting by innuendo that I might be treading on dangerously racist ground, but skirting it carefully to avoid outright accusation, so you can plead innocence (“not what I meant, it’s the way those others think”). And you wonder why I’m outraged. I’m tired of groups of people wanting to dictate–under threat of stigma–how other people should think. PC is never right, for many reasons–many of them the same reasons that racism is never right–but even if for no other, because it’s intentions are wrong, and it’s very nearly always demanded from a position of self-congratulatory ignorance. It is even more egregious when it seeks to subvert science.

            I leave you with one final thought to mull over in the context of n./s. interaction: there are many possible reasons for this, but whatever the reason, what follows has one unavoidable consequence for this argument: None–I repeat, none–of the Neanderthal DNA found so far in modern humans is mitochondrial.

          • Niemand

            Oh, I think I understand things fairly well.

            Your argument that there’s no evidence of long-term social interaction is not probative: what evidence of that kind would ever fossilise? If you mean no evidence of common burials, that’s not probative either. It’s just recently that evidence of cat-human companionship has been turned up (Cyprus burial ca. 9500 years ago). No evidence of common social life is not the same as evidence of no common social life.

            As to no Neanderthaler mitochondrial DNA having turned up in modern humans, so what? Again: no evidence of X is not the same as evidence of no X. Geneticists are still looking, fully prepared to find it:

            While there is no current evidence that Neanderthals contributed to the modern mtDNA gene
            pool, it is possible that the evidence of such admixture is obscured for a variety of reasons (Wang et al 2013). Primary among these reasons
            is sample size: There are to date only a dozen or so mtDNA sequences
            that have been sampled. Because the current sample of Neanderthal mtDNA
            is so small, it is possible that researchers simply have not yet found the mtDNA in Neanderthals that corresponds to that of modern humans.

          • Michael Cleveland

            You’re missing the forest. If Neanderthal and Sapiens had been living in social proximity and breeding for 130,000 years, the percentage of Neanderthal DNA in our genes would leave no room for doubt. It is the tiny amount of DNA that tells a story in itself, an amount that can be accounted for by offspring-producing mating events as infrequently as once every 32 to 77 generations .

            Perhaps I should have said the “broad consensus.” As I noted in another answer, H.s.neanderthalesis makes n. a subspecies of s., which doesn’t work because n. has been around for 300,000 years long than s, in a completely different part of the world. I don’t know of anyone outside the nut fringe who would take that taxonomic classification seriously. If you want to do that, then you have to turn it around and make the younger s. a subspecies of n, and their histories do not support any such idea–either idea. The H. s. neanderthalensis classification smells all too strongly of the PC influence at work again. It’s not fashionable to treat them as separate entities because it might smack of racist sentiment. BS.

            The old definition of species based on reproductive compatibility has been tossed relatively recently, but far enough back that it shouldn’t be an issue in this discussion. N. and s. have a recent common ancestor, are related closely enough to produce fertile offspring (rarely, sometimes, always?), but their histories derive separately from that ancestor under completely different evolutionary pressures, the branchings are separated by 300 millennia and a very significant stretch of real estate and environment, and the morphological differences are consistent and definitive (a lot more than nasal architecture). Different species. And that is the broad consensus.

          • Niemand

            You make a lot of strange assertions, but you don’t support them, such as your claim that “the old definition…has been tossed”. Look up the definition of species in biology: fertile offspring.

            And taxonomic categorization has nothing to do with when something takes place. Finding another, distinguishable member of h. sapiens merely requires that all the members have to become h. sap. some_identifier.

            H. s. neandertalensis co-existed with H. sap. cromagnonensis for about 30K years, from 70K to 40K BP. Given a mating age of 16 during the paleolithic period, that represents ~1900 generations.

            Now, given that the estimated h. sap. cromagnonensis population at 70K BP of 1K to 10K breeding pairs after the genetic bottleneck due to the Toba irruption, let’s presume that every woman beginning at age 16 tried to get pregnant again every 2
            years, using nursing to avoid the exhaustion of constant pregnancy.

            What percentage of attempts would result in pregnancy? What percentage
            of those would result in a live birth? What percent of the children
            would themselves live to reproduce? Given that crapshoot, how many h.s.c and h.s.n. matings would have to occur to still preserve 2% of h.s.n DNA today, 70K years (ca. 4200 generations) later?

          • Michael Cleveland

            Sorry, I’ve been sick for a couple of weeks. I did do some digging while I was down and it is apparent that some things changed while I wasn’t looking, even though I try to keep up with this. This puts me in an awkward position. I have always been the defender of science as a method of arriving at knowledge, over the ill-reasoned blatherings that appear so often on these boards, but in this case, I’m standing by what I’ve said, and suggesting the science needs correcting.

            I can’t cite the papers because it’s been so long since I read them, but some years back, it was discovered that some distinct bird species within the same genus were reproductively compatible but did not mate, not because of genetic constraints, but because they simply were no longer able to recognize each other due to differences in plumage, behavior, and song. It brought the whole issue of sexual compatibility as a species delineator into question, and the conclusion then was that by itself, it should not be, since compatibility is a spectrum, not a yes/no, dependent upon how distant in time the divergence from the parent species. It is a justifiable conclusion. Horses and donkeys can produce viable offspring–albeit infertile ones, as they are further along in the degree of separation from their common ancestor, and no one, to my knowledge, has ever suggested that either should be a subspecies of the other.

            Neanderthal and sapiens derive from two completely isolated speciation processes, at widely separated times, in different parts of the world, in different environments, under different evolutionary pressures. Their similarities are superficial, their differences profound. Neanderthal was physically more robust, with heavier bones, different skeletal proportions, and muscle to bone attachments indicating greater muscle mass and physical strength. Their brains were different. There is only so much gain in brain power possible by increasing brain size without eventually giving a fatal blow to motherhood. Sapiens evolved a more efficient solution by increasing the surface area of the brain with folds, convoluting the surface, inside a smaller brain case. Greater surface area equals greater processing power. Convolutions in the brain allow greater area within a smaller brain case, making for happier–and perhaps more survivable birthing.

            Neanderthalensis and sapiens are fully distinct species, for reasons far greater than whatever unknown degree of reproductive compatibility they might have shared.

            I cannot get past the sense that fashionability, with its influences rooted in PC, is behind the move to put both in the same box. That would be an unfortunate mistake, which would need revisiting in more rational times.

            I’ve already addressed your last question in the previously cited paper.

        • crankedyank

          I have seen some references to them as a sub-species of h. sapiens, albeit not recently.

          • Michael Cleveland

            That would be awkward, since Neanderthal has been around about 300,000 years longer than Sapiens.

          • crankedyank

            Nevertheless, some scientists, not myself and not too long ago, thought they should be more properly called H. S. Neanderthalensis. If they were H. sapiens Neanderthalensis, they were not around before H. sapiens. Just saying.

          • Michael Cleveland

            I can’t help wondering where this kind of reasoning comes from. I’ve been at this for a very long time, and I’ve never encountered H. s. neanderthalensis. But that’s not relevant. Your conclusion is weirdly backward, since you can do the research and find that Neanderthals appeared about 500,000 years ago, and modern humans appeared about 200,000 years ago, to the best of out current knowledge. The numbers may change–are even likely to, but the gap will remain. I leave you to do the math,.

          • Michael Cleveland

            Crankedyank: your response to this has disappeared as well. Apparently someone is taking sufficient exception to our responses to have them eliminated.

          • crankedyank

            Yes and this is a bit chilling. I was trying to decide what could have been offensive and truthfully could only conclude that someone expended a lot of creative energy to come up with unlikely, unpleasant interpretations.

          • Michael Cleveland

            This is in partial response to your answer to my statement, which has been removed for some unaccountable reason. By definition, Neanderthal was fully human. That’s defined by the Genus, H. (still am not allowed to spell it out here, another fall to political correctness.), not species. The original view of Neanderthal as a creeping hulk was the result of misreading the condition of the first n. skeletal remains, which were those of an old man who was so severely arthritic that he had extensive acquired physical deformities. The view was gradually corrected as other remains were found and classified. The question of superiority or inferiority is a scientific one, not a social or PC concern. First, to some extent it’s meaningless, because you have to define what either condition means, and there is no one simple definition for either. More to the point are the differences and how those differences affected the way both species lived and persisted. Neanderthal brains were larger, but sapiens brains have a larger surface area by way of having more convolutions, so in at least some respects, s. brains probably had broader capabilities. There is some reason or combination of reasons that s. survived and n. did not, but we don’t really have a very complete handle on that. It may be that adaptability to changing conditions gave s. an edge, but even that may be over-simple. In any event, there is no “human vs. Neanderthal.” They weren’t the same, but they were both fully Human.

          • crankedyank

            Thanks for the explanation. I didn’t now that our brains were more convoluted but it does make sense and that certainly could have more than compensated for sheer volume. My point is that they very much seem to have been fully human in a cognitive and emotional sense and should be referred to in a way that acknowledges their place as our close cousins and fellow humans. There is a dimension to “humanity” that goes beyond what we can measure by science and my impression is that Neanderthals possessed this to a degree that approximated our own.

          • Niemand

            Why wouldn’t they have been around before H. sap. cro-magnensis (better name than sap. sap.)? It’s just a classification.

          • Niemand

            The deniers are still trying to find a way to get past that 2%, their current claim being the Neanderthal nasal architecture proves they were a different species. But if that’s true, then the definition of “species” has to change, and I really doubt that even the deniers want to do that.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    Did they possess cooperative technologies? Communication was necessary. More to the point,

    www(.)youtube(.)com/watch?v=zh79iPi-y-c

  • Jeffrey A Jones

    I wonder if Neanderthals enjoyed sunsets or sunrises more. Would like to see a study on that. Then one on what was their favorite color. Inquiring minds want to know.

    • Michael Cleveland

      Well, as they said, some things don’t fossilize, and can’t be known.

  • Arttai

    Pretty sure that languaage is a gradient, not an ability that you either have or not. Other animals asoo have a language, but maybe not as complex as we do. Our languages were not very complex probably till not very long ago. the question then is how much of a language did Neanderthal had compared to sapiens back than and now?

    • William Magaletta

      Languages became *simpler* recently, not more complex.

      • Michael Cleveland

        On the contrary, language is becoming more complex daily. Acronyms are a relatively new language shorthand, and language literacy requires extensive knowledge of this very new vocabulary. We are adding pictographic symbols to everyday language (I “heart” NY, for example). Old words take on new meanings, first perhaps as slang, which then becomes common usage (isn’t that cool?) And there are old words with take on new meanings at the expense of old (having a gay time will never be the same as it used to be). Literacy requires knowledge not only of the current language, but of the context of the old as well, understanding of the history of the changes, and the ability to interpret both old and new meanings from context and the age of the writing, among other things. Language has never been more complex, and it gets more so every day.

        • William Magaletta

          Grammar has become simpler. This was more or less necessary in order to have written language and ease of understanding over a large territory. I don’t think a language should be called “more complex” for having a larger vocabulary.

          • Michael Cleveland

            I’m not talking about simply having a larger list of words. Remember, language is for communicating ideas. New ways of communicating with new uses for not just words, but new ways of using symbols and keeping track of shifting meanings for both add layers of complexity to communication. I’m not sure upon what you are basing this, but it might need some rethinking. Language has evolved into more complexity, not less. You are writing in English, which has one of the most complex grammatical structures in the world, if not the most complex. That structure is why English is a standard language in many applications: that very complexity gives it a greater potential for precision of communication.

          • William Magaletta

            English does not have a very complex grammatical structure! Spanish is considerably more complex, what with two past tenses, reflexive verbs, and the use of the present subjunctive. Russian is more complex, what with case endings. Many languages use gender. English does not.

          • Michael Cleveland

            Yet Spanish is considered to be one of the easiest languages to learn, while English is one of the most difficult, perhaps next only to Chinese among modern languages. There are many layers to complexity, many different kinds of complexity.

          • OWilson

            The English language evolved from Celtic, Germanic, Nordic, Roman (Latin), Norman French, Arabic and Indian. It retains an amazing variety of words from each, many words for the same noun, in fact no other language has the same number of synonyms, each one with a fine subtle difference when used in context.

            It can allow one to express complex human thoughts. In addition to the basic human emotions of anger, sadness, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise, and contempt, it verbalises humor, scorn, irony, horror, and love.

            The Bible, Greek and Nordic myths, gained their current popularity from English translations, which enhanced and enriched the original stories. It reached it’s zenith with Shakespeare, and if you want to experience the true richness of the language, I would heartly recommend Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe”, which is truly a mind blowing revelation on the use of conversational English, particulary the diatribes between the common Anglo Saxons and their elite Norman overlords.

            Alas, the works of these great literate geniuses, including Mark Twain, contain social attitudes reflective of their times, and are no longer considered worthy of exposing to our students.

          • Niemand

            Like Chinese, English has a very simple grammar, almost all syntactic roles being encoded by position.

            The problem for most learners is the near-complete disconnect between pronunciation and spelling.

          • Robert Anasi

            Along with the enormous vocabulary and multitude of phrasal verbs and idioms. English is a relatively easy language to pick up on a basic level but intermediate learners struggle to achieve greater fluency.

    • crankedyank

      That’s a reasonable proposition. The gradient itself would be in our minds, as would any transitions demarcated by points along the gradient. Since language conditions thought, care must be taken to avoid building sand castles when pondering its nature.

  • m242424

    Language yes, the debate is whether it has syntax and grammar.

    I have understood a few “words” of other species eg crows. Probably the first person in the world smart enough to. But I could only break down the most simplist of the crow language, the phrases I heard them repeat on different occasions and I heard no syntax or grammar. They repeated the exact same squarks for the exact same meaning and nothing additionally or variant to it that i could discern.

    So animals language yes, syntax, not sure. They could just talk in statements like i heard with the crows.

    Im sure if you tagged a ‘teacher’ crow with a microphone and video camera you would be able to learn more of their language. It would not be hard. If you did then the human would have to where the devices as well and repeat a crow phrase while training another younger human to show the crow the device is not dangerous etc. Im sure the person who did this would know what i am saying, otherwise make some article saying you want someone to do it and ill say hello.

    • Michael Cleveland

      When a contributor says “(I am) probably the first person in the world smart enough….” and uses phrases like “most simplist,” it’s a pretty fair assumption that we are reading the words of a kid because literate adults don’t write that way. If you want to do this research, and make credible claims for it, you should complete your education and ensure that basic English syntax, spelling, and grammar receive a high priority, right up there with the science in which you wish to participate. But you should not present yourself as something you are not, because you can’t ever look smarter or older, or better educated than you are. Can’t be done.

    • Niemand

      Recall that not all aspects of language are encoded vocally. I’d bet that, while you spotted the re-use of a call by a crow, the birds may have added nuances of meaning non-verbally or even using a frequency humans don’t hear. Which isn’t to take away from your achievement.

  • Guillermo Davila

    If I’m not mistaken, fairly recently, archaeologists found cave art in Neanderthal lands dated to before the African exodus of our main species.

    • Niemand

      Yes, nature dot com, February 2018

      “Neanderthal artists made oldest-known cave paintings”

  • chubbychap

    Surely if Neanderthals, Sapiens and Denisovans managed to live together and interbreed they must have been able to communicate between each other.

    • Michael Cleveland

      Not necessarily. If mating had been a regular thing during the full time when these groups lived in close proximity, there would be a higher percentage of DNA from the extinct members of the family than there is, so matings had to be relatively infrequent. I would remind you that rape has been a favorite pastime of sapiens males for as long as anyone can remember, and it’s probably fair to assume the same was true of Neanderthal and Denisovan, as would be a degree of learned avoidance. Such connections were more likely opportunistic than social. That particular pastime does not require the complexity of communication that you are claiming.

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