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Neandertals' Speech and Language Similar To Our Modern Languages

11 July, 2013

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MessageToEagle.com - A new study presents the evidence that Neandertals, Denisovans and contemporary modern humans shared a similar capacity for modern language, speech and culture.

The Neanderthals - our closest cousins -have fascinated both the academic world and the general public ever since their discovery almost 200 years ago.

They were even much more similar to us than imagined even a decade ago.

But did they have anything like modern speech and language?



According to researchers Dr Dediu and Dr Levinson, from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and the Radboud University Nijmegen, modern language and speech can be traced back to the last common ancestor we shared with the Neandertals roughly half a million years ago.

Initially thought to be subhuman brutes incapable of anything but the most primitive of grunts, they were a successful form of humanity inhabiting vast swathes of western Eurasia for several hundreds of thousands of years, during harsh ages and milder interglacial periods.

However, it was long time unclear what their cognitive capacities were like, or why modern humans succeeded in replacing them after thousands of years of cohabitation.

Recently, due to new palaeoanthropological and archaeological discoveries and the reassessment of older data, but especially to the availability of ancient DNA, researchers have started to realize that their fate was much more intertwined with ours and their cognitive capacities and culture were comparable to ours, as well.

Essentially modern language and speech are an ancient feature of our lineage dating back at least to the most recent ancestor we shared with the Neandertals and the Denisovans (another form of humanity known mostly from their genome), researchers Dediu and Levinson say.

In their paper they push back the origins of modern language by a factor of 10 from the often-cited 50 or so thousand years, to around a million years ago -- somewhere between the origins of our genus, Homo, some 1.8 million years ago, and the emergence of Homo heidelbergensis.

Given that we know from the archaeological record and recent genetic data that the modern humans spreading out of Africa interacted both genetically and culturally with the Neandertals and Denisovans, then just as our bodies carry around some of their genes, maybe our languages preserve traces of their languages too.

This would mean that at least some of the observed linguistic diversity is due to these ancient encounters, an idea testable by comparing the structural properties of the African and non-African languages, and by detailed computer simulations of language spread.

The research paper is available in the journal Frontiers in Language Sciences.


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