Can you speak Neanderthal? Or rather could Neaderthals speak language like we do? We present the blog post by Stefan Haas, winner in the category Best Content in the #BUblogosphere competition. Congratulations Stefan!
The very word Neanderthal conjures up images of primal men who share more with beasts than humanity, clad in thick hair with clubs and no further vocabulary than ‘Ug’. In truth it is likely Homo neanderthalensis our sister species were far more complex than we give them credit. It is not only believed they buried their dead possibly with flowers as seen at Shanidar, Northern Iraq, but that they also produced music from flutes made of bone.
Complex language is often cited as 1 of the key facets that sets modern humans apart from other species we share the planet with, but 30 thousand years ago we coexisted with Neanderthals. Mostly living in Europe, they had larger braincases, more robust skeletons and yet were slightly shorter than our modern populations, it has been said time and time again if a Neanderthal walked down the street, you probably wouldn’t even notice.
Whether they could conduct complex language however depends on how you view language arises within a species; of which there are 2 main views, Charles Darwin’s and Noam Chomsky’s. Darwin’s thoughts on language are that it arose under gradual evolution, perhaps that early humans produced crude noises which took on meanings as a first step. From this over thousands of years of evolution, vocal organs and their intricate uses were perfected as these were favourable to population survival. In contrast Noam Chomsky sets complex language as an All or Nothing situation, he believes all human languages are essentially somewhat similar in their Universal Grammar with which we are born with, it is this ability to interpret and recreate speech patterns that would have suddenly lent complex language to early humans. This idea of language being an all or nothing facet is supported by some recent genetic research into the Fox P2 gene; essentially both ourselves and Neanderthals both have this gene on 1 of our chromosome. This gene has been seen to be pivotal to speech, and mutations of it are often associated with speech and language disorders.
However language is attained by a species, there is much evidence Neanderthals utilised it extensively. Some scientists have done much research into the capacity of the Neanderthal vocal tract and its ability to produce vowel sounds that allow a language to flow; it is now believed Neanderthals would be able to produce most of the vowel sounds although perhaps struggling with some due to the shape of their hyoid bone. All of this would also possibly have a much more nasal sound due to their large prominent noses. Neanderthals likely had a social structure not too dissimilar to ours and their Hunter-gatherer lifestyle would have surely utilised language as a means of achieving some impressive feats, such as the combined hunting tactics required to run woolly mammoths off cliffs to their deaths as seen on the Island of Jersey.
The image of the Neanderthals as big game specialists, hunting the large animals often associated with the Ice Ages is perhaps 1 of the more accurate views of the pop culture image, this has been evidenced in isotope studies (looking at the chemical variants found in remains from diet) and from the injuries sustained by many Neanderthal skeletons, truly hunting mammoths with flint tools is not for the faint hearted! There is even a recent suggestion that part of the reason they became extinct was their inability to adapt to hunting smaller prey such as rabbits that our species Homo sapiens have adapted to hunt so well.
The odds are very much so that Neanderthals had some form of complex language, it would have reinforced their social structure and allowed for complex hunting capabilities. It may have even allowed for some of the possible mixing between Neanderthals and ourselves.
By: Stefan Haas