Did Neanderthals Use Complex Language?

In the early 2000s, the Human Genome Project was making headlines, with its ambitious endeavor to map the individual genes that make up the human genome. Geneticist J. Craig Venter, one of the driving forces behind the Human Genome Project, delivered the commencement speech at Georgetown University in 2002, the year I graduated in computational linguistics. I remember listening to him describe the daunting challenge of identifying the thousands of genes in the human genome. It was truly inspiring to hear his first-hand account of this major scientific achievement.

Talk about innovation!

Since that time, researchers have gained a tremendous understanding of human genes. They’ve even mapped the genomes of other animal species. Including Neanderthals.

When we think of Neanderthals, we think of primitive grunting cavemen who died out against the intellectually superior homo sapiens (us). Neanderthals were such… Neanderthals!

Or were they?? Evidence discovered in recent years suggests that Neanderthals may have had complex language after all, far from the grunts we give them credit for.

Neanderthals were such… Neanderthals! Or were they??

Firstly, DNA evidence paints a complex picture of the Neanderthals. (It’s way more than I can cover here, but look it up. Seriously. Or check out NOVA’s “Decoding Neanderthals” on Netflix or YouTube.) For one thing, Neanderthal DNA has the same FOXP2 gene as humans. This gene, colloquially known as the language gene, is what allows us humans to use language while other primates cannot. That’s a big deal.

Secondly, Neanderthal bones give credence to the theory of complex Neanderthal language. A Neanderthal skeleton discovered in 1989 has a hyoid bone positioned as in humans. The hyoid bone supports the root of the tongue when speaking. By contrast, the hyoid bone in non-human primates is positioned in such a way that it does not allow vocalized speech.

Lastly — and what I believe is the strongest evidence of complex language in Neanderthals — comes from the very recent discovery of interbreeding between Neanderthals and homo sapiens. Researchers have found that Neanderthal DNA makes up an average of 1-4% of the DNA of non-African modern humans.

What??

This tells us that the interbreeding between Neanderthals and homo sapiens was extremely common at the time, at least in some parts of the world. Researchers suggest it went on for some 5,000 years. The Neanderthals didn’t go extinct; they were absorbed into our species!

Alright, so where does language play into this? Think about it. There had to be some communication involved. Ice-breakers. Relationships. Cheap pickup lines at caveman bars.

caveman_resized

That point is…. Neanderthals were biologically equipped for language, just like us. Now, given the sociological factor of 5,000 years of interbreeding, it is entirely reasonable to believe that their language was every bit as rich as that of the homo sapiens of the time. To take it a step further, their languages were likely the SAME.