Hear a Neanderthal Talk (and Other Interesting Neanderthal Language Rumblings)

Anthropology.net and New Scientist have recently reported on a couple of developments in the Neanderthal language debate.
Firstly, a new paper is in the works that will cast doubt upon the conclusions of the now famous Neanderthal FOXP2 paper from last year. Krause et al found the same adaptive variation of the language-implicated FOXP2 gene as is found in humans in Neanderthal DNA sequences, and claimed that the this was evidence for FOXP2 as a homologous trait that was present in our common ancestor. Cue endless headlines about how this finding is proof that Neanderthals had language.

Thanks to a talk by D’Errico at Evolang (post upcoming) I do believe that Neanderthals had some sort of fairly sophisticated vocal communication, but this based on the archeological record rather than the presence/absence of FOXP2. As many commentators noted at the time, the presence of FOXP2 is not proof of language. Firstly, FOXP2 is by no means the sole gene responsible for language. Secondly, the role of FOXP2 in producing language is far from clear, another paper last year found similar adaptive variation in echolocating bats and suggested it might more likely be a gene for co-ordinating orofacial movement. Certainly FOXP2 is a gene whose main role is the activation/deactivation of other genes.

Well an as yet unpublished paper is apparently going to take issue with one of the main claims of the original study, namely that this finding was consistent with a homologous adaptation in the common ancestor of humans and neanderthals. Here’s the abstract:

Krause et al. (2007) recently examined patterns of genetic variation at FOXP2 in two Neandertals. This gene is of particular interest because it is involved in speech and language and was previously shown to harbor the signature of recent positive selection. The authors found the same two amino-acid substitutions in Neandertals as in modern humans. Assuming that these sites were the targets of selection and no interbreeding between the two groups, they concluded that selection at FOXP2 occurred before the populations split, over 300Kya. Here, we show that the data are unlikely under this scenario but may instead be consistent with low rates of gene flow between modern humans and Neandertals. We also collect additional data and introduce a modeling framework to estimate levels of modern human contamination of the Neandertal samples. We find that, depending on the assumptions, additional control experiments may be needed to rule out contamination at FOXP2.

A very simple explanation for the presence of FOXP2 in neanderthals would be that there was some sort of interbreeding between the species. The original paper made the broad assumption that interbreeding did not take place between humans and neanderthals on the basis of the fact that other randomly selected genes were undisturbed and the selective sweep for the FOXP2 gene came after our common ancestor. At the time people like John Hawks expressed a cynicism about the strength of this assumption. The writers of this new paper argue that the evidence presented in the original paper does not imply a homologous adaptation in a common ancestor. They argue that it is consistent with low level interbreeding, but the lack of definition means that we cannot also rule out the possibility that it got there from human contamination. An interesting prospect.

On a similar note Robert McCarthy, an anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University, has used models of the Neanderthal vocal tract to try and simulate what Neanderthals sounded like. He has even made a ‘recording’ of a neanderthal pronouncing a vowel sound. McCarthy argues that neanderthals lacked the capacity to produce the basic human quantal vowels, thus seriously impeding their ability to use language.

In contrast to a modern human “E”, the Neanderthal version doesn’t have a quantal hallmark, which helps a listener distinguish the word “beat” from “bit,” for instance. Though subtle, the linguistic difference would have limited Neanderthal speech, McCarthy says.

I’m very dubious that this proves anything about neanderthal language. Firstly, who says it evolved in the same way as humans? Secondly it is based on a fairly narrow set of evidence, expanding upon the work of Lieberman, who argued that neanderthals had impaired language ability. It might add some weight to the idea of a limited langauge faculty, but I don’t think it can really be used to argue that this rules out language in neanderthals.

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9 Responses to “Hear a Neanderthal Talk (and Other Interesting Neanderthal Language Rumblings)”


  1. 1 Anne Gilbert April 17, 2008 at 5:16 am

    All I can say to this “quantal e” argument is, that the people who did the study seem to me to be clutching at straws as far as “neandertal language difference” claims are concerned. It’s clear that they are not linguists, whatever else they may be. No, it doesn’t “prove” that Neandertals had ro didn’t have language. But a lot of other evidence would seem to suggest that they did. And however they communicated(whether or not they could pronounce a “quantal e”), they probably could understand a “modern” human’s differentiation or lack of same, by context(just as people do now), assuming there was communication between the two groups at various times). This study is interesting, but. . . .
    Anne G

  2. 2 Meg Murry April 18, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    Anne G:
    They most certainly are linguists…google Phil Lieberman, he is a highly regarded linguist. Dr. McCarthy a highly regarded physical anthropologist. If you had read the original articles and not this misrepresented blog, you would know that McCarthy, Lieberman, et al are not arguing that Neanderthals did not have language. On the contrary, Dr. McCarthy is quoted in several well-researched articles as saying it is obvious that Neanderthals had complex languages and means of communication. The only difference they were able to surmise is that Neanderthals could not make quantal vowel sounds, which are the hallmarks of modern human language. He goes further to say it would be ridilulous to assume that a Neanderthal would not have been able to communicate with a modern human due to this anomaly.
    I enjoy reading posts, but am often disappointed when someone who is clearly not an academic attempts to translate scientific evidence. Read journals, not nonsense, please.

  3. 3 languageevolution April 18, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    I think that’s quite an odd repsonse Meg. I’m totally in favour of the idea of that neanderthals had some form of language (read the post again). I’m not sure how your knowledge/opinion differs from ours, except perhaps in being even more dismissive. It seems that we’re all in agreement. We all seem to agree that neanderthals had complex communication and that the lack of quantals doesn’t mean they had no language.
    Is your issue perhaps that you have different definition of language to the one we are using. I’ve just reread a bunch of Lieberman papers and he certainly makes the claim that they have impaired language skills compared to humans.
    “A linguistic ability inferior to modern man.” (1972)
    “Neanderthals … could not have possessed SVTs capable of swallowing and of producing fully human speech.” (2006)
    He even goes so far as to argue that this is the cause of their extinction. (1992)

    Of course to most linguists complex vocal communication and language are different things. So ultimately I’m just not sure what the quantal evidence/argument proves. We haven’t seen the paper yet so we don’t know exactly what the argument they are making is, but it seems to me the lack of quantals might be used by some to argue that neanderthals lacked a capacity for complex and subtle communication. Certainly that would fit in with everything Lieberman has said on the subject so far. He has presented a range of strong evidence for physiological impairments to neanderthal speech capacities. The question is, do speech impairment rule out language, and are we to presume that the structures and mechanisms of human language are the only way for complex communication to take place?
    It seems to me the lack of quantals is only important if you hold on to the claim that they are in some way essential to the complexities of human speech. I am cynical, but lacking a nice tape-recording of neanderthal speech it is very difficult to make any kind of strong case either way. We’ll need to look closely at human quantal use for evidence, and even then we can’t be sure that Neanderthals didn’t use some other method.
    There are of course any other number of issues to address, like interbreeding between populations (surely if language in humans was that much better and adaptive then it would have spread like wildfire if interbreeding took place) and the impact of cultural transmission and context upon the use and formation of language.

    Thanks for the comments on the “nonsense”

  4. 4 meg murry April 18, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    Anytime! I am merely responding to the misquotes and misattributions you make in the your article. For example, Dr. McCarthy states that becuase Neanderthals lacked the ability to produce quantal vowels, that its speech would be limited. Clearly in the modern sense, not in a contemporary one for a neanderthal. However, you go on to expound that Dr. McCarthy argues that since they lacked the capacity to produce quantal vowels, neanderthals were seriously impeded in their ability to use language. At no point in any of the interviews that are available regarding this topic has Dr. McCarthy expressed this idea. His arguments, are in fact, the opposite. He argues that the differences are merely between modern humans and neanderthals. He states categorically in several interviews that neanderthals likely had complex language skills, indeed would have needed to to overcome the quantal shortcoming.

    As for the quotes you have represented from Dr. Lieberman, they do not support saying the neanderthals were a lower form of life as you imply. they are meant obviously as a comparison to modern humans, who obviously co-existed with neanderthals for a time. He states that a neanderthals linguisitic ability is “inferior” to modern humans. What you are not understanding is that he does not say that their communication was inferior, only their developed language skills. And clearly we now can surmise it was physical and not developmental, as well as understand that their ability to produce modern language is indeed inferior.
    As neither of us were there, how can we know what caused their extinction? Is it so hard to believe that their superior language skills are what saved our ancestors? Its called evolution.
    You state in your article other “facts” about the foxp2 gene, but clearly the presence of htis gene alone does not speech make.
    you have simply misunderstood the fine distinction between speech and language.

  5. 5 languageevolution April 18, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    I’m amused (and a little frustrated here) because you have completely misunderstood what I have said whilst also managing to sound delightfully condescending.
    I think perhaps we’re talking at cross purposes at our definitions of language, and yes, I fully understand the difference between language and speech. I would love to know what definition of language you are using here because for any evolutionary argument this becomes very important. It seems to me that you are confusing language and communication.
    I’m not attributing any claims to McCarthy or Lieberman about this paper, so I’ll repeat “We haven’t seen the paper yet so we don’t know exactly what the argument they are making is”. If you have the links to these interviews I’d love to read them because the Lieberman papers I have read are very consistent in their claims of impeded speech, what is less clear is how they think this affects language, and language isn’t necesarily the same thing as communication. I’ve been unable to find anything on their wider claims just now so any extra information would be welcome.

  6. 7 Meg Murry April 18, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    If you would like to see the differences that McCarthy and Lieberman are talking about, look at Lieberman, P 2007 in Current Anthropology. First few pages list excellent information about the relationships between quantal speech and human spoken language.
    i dont remember the edition, nor am i in my office to research which edition it was.

    i am hoping for publishing soon, i have been following this avidly.

  7. 8 Watercat April 20, 2008 at 1:00 am

    I have never understood why this is even an issue. Several of my professors could not make quantal vowels, or any vowels at all, but we got on fine by communicating in ASL. All that is needed is a dozen or so phonemically contrastive perceptual units–with a little effort, we could probably make that many sounds with our armpits.

  8. 9 Rizwan Qasim March 6, 2010 at 6:08 am

    It’s a great post Man, you really are a good writer! I’m so glad someone like you have the time, efforts and dedication writing, for this kind of article… Helpful, Useful.. Very nice post!


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