A new paper published in the journal Frontiers in Language Sciences on July 5 suggests ancient hominids were not as primitive as we thought. The research was carried out by Dutch scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics and they suggest Neanderthals possessed a common tonal language to communicate among them. The key of the research lies on the hypothesis that language developed progressively as a consequence of biological and cultural evolution and not simply as an outcome of a random genetic mutation.
Evidence of a Common Language among Neanderthals
Both Neanderthals and Denisovans are subspecies of Homo sapiens, the scientific name for the human species. As a consequence, they are genetically close to modern humans and all of them share a gene involved in language, called FOXP2. The Neanderthals’ language can be assumed to have been tonal because of the association of tone and two other genes present in their genetic structure.
Further biological traits suggest a similarity between Neanderthals and humans, making the former’s ability to speak more likely. According to Dr. Dan Dediu, the paper’s lead author and a senior investigator in the Language and Genetics Department, modern humans and Neanderthals share a similar hyoid bone, located between the chin and the thyroid cartilage which aids in tongue movement and swallowing and is involved in speech production. Neanderthals’ ear bones also appear to have evolved to attune themselves to speech in the same way modern humans’ ears work.
Another factor that would support Dediu and his team’s theory about language is Neanderthals’ symbolic thinking. Language implies the use of symbolism to attach sounds, words and concepts through a complex mental process. According to this new research, Neanderthals possessed complex toolkits and social lives, and an ability to persist in the harsh. This shows the primitive humans’ capacity for symbolism and culture.
Possible Implications of the Research
According to Dediu, cultural change cannot be explained by simply attributing it to a change in the genetic structure of humans. Rather, the research suggests that culture itself generates the pressures for biological adaptation, rather than being solely a consequence of it.
If this theory was to be proven correct after rigorous testing, the new information would mean we carry Neanderthal genes in our own genomes and our language still preserves some common traits with the one used by Neanderthals. If the theory was proven to be correct, it would also mean that the origins of modern language should be traced back to several thousand years earlier than what it is currently believed. Today, many believe modern language started around 50,000 years ago. The paper, however, would set the beginning of modern language during a period a million years ago, around the time when the first humans appeared.