Did Neanderthals Have the Capacity for Verbal Language?

Did Neanderthals Have the Capacity for Verbal Language?
Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images)

The Neanderthal of popular imagination is a hideous, ape-like being, lumbering around with his or her crude spear. Rarely do we picture this person, or pre-person, engaged in any kind of conversation, beyond the occasional grunt-off over a spoiled piece of meat. But — depending on which archaeologist/linguist you happen to ask — the truth is somewhat different. Some researchers, of course, are more convinced than others; for this week’s Giz Asks, we present a survey on the subject.

Anna Goldfield

Researcher, Anthropology, UC Davis, whose research focuses on Neanderthal nutrition and subsistence behaviour

There are two sides to this discussion: the language side and the cognitive side.

The language side is, essentially: Did Neanderthals have the physical capacity to speak and make the sounds that language requires? Much of the debate here turns on the hyoid bone, which is located just under the jawbone, inside your throat. It allows us, among other things, to swallow, take in air, and speak.

There is a single Neanderthal hyoid preserved, from a site in Israel called Kabara. This is the only Neanderthal hyoid bone we have, so it is very difficult to draw large extrapolations about their capacity of speech from it. But using computer modelling, researchers have taken data for where the hyoid bone sits in the human throat and then skewed those measurements to fit on the Neanderthal skull. They’ve figured out where the hyoid most likely sat in the Neanderthal throat, and they’ve used that to model what the Neanderthal voice box would look like. The upshot of that is we can tell Neanderthals would have had the anatomical equipment to make most of the same mouth, tongue, and throat movements that humans can.

Neanderthal skulls are a bit different than human skulls, which means some of the sounds would have been different, too, though I’m not sure to what extent. I think the way they pronounced some of the sounds, especially some vowel sounds, might sound a bit odd to human ears. (Though it’s important to note that all of this is very speculative.)

Then there’s the cognitive side, which is a whole other can of worms, one that is even more speculative. We have evidence of Neanderthal sociality: We know they had family groups, we know they cared for one another. They had the kinds of social relationships that would be conducive to a form of verbal communication. And given what we know about their technology, and even the (very few, debated) examples of their art, there’s nothing to suggest that, cognitively, they were any less able to communicate than humans. But it’s important to note that there’s more evidence against them not being able to communicate than there is direct evidence for any form of communication. We just don’t have it: It’s something intangible, and very difficult to get at through what’s left in the archaeological record.

Stephen C. Levinson

Director Emeritus, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, whose research focuses on language diversity and its implications for theories of human cognition

A lot of recent findings converge to show that the evidence is now overwhelming that Neanderthals had the capacity for verbal language. To enumerate:

1. They had the right genes, as far as we can tell

2. They had the modern vocal tract that enables language

3. They had the special enervation of the thoracic vertebrae implicated in precise breath control for speech

4. Their audition, as shown by audiograms based on proto-Neanderthal middle ear formation, was more or less identical to modern humans and distinct from apes

5. They used symbolic media, made cave paintings, and decorated the dead

6. They utilised advanced technology that would take years with full instruction for you or I to learn, and collectively hunted megafauna.

It is vanishingly unlikely Neanderthals were endowed with properties 1-4 without those capacities having been honed by language use over hundreds of thousands of years. It is also unlikely that they would have exhibited the behaviours in 5-6 without the benefit of language. Since Neanderthals and modern humans shared a main common ancestor over 600,000 years ago, and the two branches evidence early language, vocal language must go back at least that far.

It is much harder of course to know exactly what Neanderthal languages were like — that there were many is likely, given the vast geographies and time-scales involved. As we learn more about the contribution of genes to specific brain areas and the vocal tract, we may be able to home in on some of the properties — there are hints, for example, that their languages may have been tonal, like Chinese.

So if vocal languages didn’t originate with anatomically modern humans (us), when did it originate? Another hard question, but based on a single well-preserved vertebral column from Homo erectus (1.6 million years old), it appears that Homo erectus did not have property 3 above, and thus lacked spoken language, which must therefore have arisen sometime between 1.6 million and 600,000 years ago. Since H. erectus was also a highly successful advanced tool user and had mastered fire and many different Eurasian and African ecologies, it may be supposed that the species used an advanced sign language of the kind still evident among deaf communities today. It is otherwise hard to explain why we are the only species that can shift the modality of its communication system from the oral to the gestural — indeed we freely gesture as we use spoken languages in a curious way.

Cheryl Hill

Professor, Pathology and Anatomical Sciences, University of Missouri

The short answer is…maybe.

Language, including writing and especially verbal language, is a hallmark of humanity. The ongoing discussion about whether Neanderthals had the capacity for verbal language points to our fascination with our origins and what makes us human. We look to the fossil record to better understand our place in the world and figure out when “human” behaviours emerged.

Scientists have examined many aspects of Neanderthal anatomy in an attempt to determine whether Neanderthals could speak. By comparing the fossil remains of Neanderthals to extant, or living, animals, like humans and other primates, we can identify similarities among species. For example, the hyoid, which is a floating bone in the neck and connected via muscle to the larynx, has a similar shape in humans and Neanderthals. Unfortunately, the larynx, or voicebox, is made of cartilage, so we don’t have any fossilised larynges to study.

Ears may hold some clues, too. Scientists have used computed tomography (CT) scanning to study the middle and inner ear of Neanderthals. These scans reveal that the small bones of the middle ear (auditory ossicles) and the cochlea appear to be functionally similar in Neanderthals and humans. This suggests Neanderthals and modern humans would have been capable of hearing similar sounds, which is notable because human ears are optimised for hearing human voices. (This is why we can’t hear dog whistles, for example.)

So, the fossil record evidence is tantalising, but not definitive. Also, since brains and nerves don’t fossilise, we lack evidence of key neural connections and language production and processing areas in the Neanderthal brain.

Scientists have discovered a lot about the anatomy of Neanderthals which allow us to speculate on their capacity for language, but unfortunately, we are still missing crucial pieces to the puzzle.

Thomas Wynn

Professor, Anthropology, University of Colorado Colorado Springs

My background is archaeology, not linguistics, so I have that particular slant on it. But I think the simplest way to answer this question is to say that the evidence neither demonstrates nor eliminates the possibility of Neanderthals having spoken language. A lot has been written on the subject, but none of it is really convincing one way or the other. Rudie Botha published a book recently which persuaded me to go along with his line of thinking, which is that none of the arguments that claim to demonstrate Neanderthals had spoken language are convincing. There are gaps in the reasoning. When I look at the archaeological record, I think, yes, there’s some evidence Neanderthals might have used symbols, but use of symbols doesn’t necessarily mean they had language.

Part of the problem is that most people don’t carefully define what they mean when they talk about language. Language and speech are two related but different things. Even if you were to demonstrate that Neanderthals had some kind of speech, that would not necessarily mean they had language — all it would demonstrate is that Neanderthals had some form of vocal communication. It would not mean they had language in any modern conception of the term.

Neanderthals have become sort of a doppelganger for people: We project a lot of our personal, political, and theoretical biases onto them. You end up with very few sober interpretations. From my point of view as an archaeologist, I don’t think there’s any way we’re ever going to know about the nature of Neanderthal communication.

Chris Stringer

Research Leader, Human Evolution, Natural History Museum, London

I think that simple talking, using words, must already have existed in early human species, given the complexity of behaviour that is already apparent at sites like Boxgrove and Schöningen in Europe and Kapthurin in Kenya that predate the Neanderthals. So Neanderthals would have inherited and built on the kind of language or languages acquired from their ancestors. The shape of the hyoid bone, which is linked to the voice box, is similar in Neanderthals and modern humans, and their middle ear bones seem to have had a similar functionality to ours, both of which suggest comparable speech and hearing capabilities, although some reconstructions of the throat suggest the voice box was positioned higher in Neanderthals, giving them higher-pitched voices.

Language, as compared with talking, evolved out of social complexity, out of a need to communicate increasingly intricate and subtle messages, and so I think that modern human languages would have been more complex than those of the Neanderthals. Our languages are not just for the here and now, as earlier ones mostly were, since through them we can talk about the past and future, about abstract concepts and feelings and relationships, and about virtual worlds that we can create in our minds.

Nathan Lents

Professor, Biology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, whose lab studies the recent evolution of the human genome in an effort to help understand the genetic underpinnings of human uniqueness

Unfortunately, speech doesn’t leave a fossil or archaeological record the way that writing does. We are quite sure that modern humans could not only speak, but use complex grammatical language, long before they started writing. Humans are born to speak and use language — it’s a hard-wired instinct that evolved over enormous amounts of time, because it’s a biological behaviour, whereas written language is purely cultural. We don’t have to teach our children to speak. They will just automatically begin to do so through imitation and spontaneous expression. Not so with written language. This had to be invented and developed, and it has to be painfully taught and learned because it is not hard-wired in any way.

So how can we determine if Neanderthals could speak? Anthropologists typically look in three key areas. First is the vocal anatomy. We know that the human throat has several adaptations that specifically facilitate speech. Unfortunately, we don’t have soft tissue from Neanderthals so we don’t know much about their vocal tract. But what we can tell from their hyoid bone — the bone from which the voice box is hung — is that they have some of the same adaptations that we have and that our most recent common ancestor does not. In other words, what little evidence we have from their throat is suggestive. It’s not a slam dunk, but it scores points in the “yes” column.

The second line of evidence is genetics. The genetics of human speech is staggeringly complex, speaking to how this behaviour slowly evolved over millions of years. Because most of those millions of years were in shared common ancestry with Neanderthals — we only diverged from them in the last million years — this fact alone somewhat supports the notion that they had some kind of speech or advanced communication. In addition, the few precise gene variants that we know are crucial for human speech are shared with Neanderthals. This, too, argues that Neanderthals communicated in complex ways, though not necessarily through spoken language.

A third way that we can consider the likelihood of Neanderthal language is to consider their behaviour and their technology. They have, by far, the most sophisticated set of tools and other artifacts of any species other than modern humans. They had hand axes, ropes, clothing, jewellery, and body paint. They may have used projectile weapons, controlled use of fire, and buried their dead. This is the most controversial type of evidence and there are sharp disagreements among the experts on what Neanderthals really made and what it meant to them. Taken as whole, the body of artifacts attributed to Neanderthals argues for impressive handiwork, procedural memory, and even calculation. Like modern humans, they survived in harsh climates through ingenuity. They were highly intelligent and with brains as big as ours, even bigger in many cases. The question is, “Did they have symbolic thought?” We don’t have conclusive evidence either way, but it is looking more and more likely that they did.

And a final point to consider. The spoken word is not the only form of complex language that we should be thinking about. It may very well be that gestures and sign language were the earliest forms of complex language in our history. One strong piece of evidence is the striking repertoire of gestures and body language among the other African apes, gorillas and the two species of chimpanzees. These apes communicate with dozens, maybe hundreds, of specific gestures, while their vocalisations are pretty generic. Some apes have even been taught to sign and understand using human sign language. Communicating with sign language involves most of the same brain areas and the same genes as vocal communication, so it’s possible that both of these evolved together, each reinforcing the other, as our ancestors became more and more behaviourally modern.

Jeffrey Laitman

Distinguished Professor and Director, Centre for Anatomy & Functional Morphology, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

My science has dealt with the evaluation of the developing head and neck region, particularly the areas of the throat and the parts in communication with the middle ear. It’s also looked at how our larynx has evolved, how the spaces around it have evolved, and what this has meant for our species’ evolution. Part of what our group has done over the decades has been to find ways to reconstruct the soft anatomy, the perishable anatomy, of human ancestors (the throat, the eustachian tube), and to develop some idea of how our ancestors may actually have lived.

Most people that study Neanderthals agree, to the extent that scientists can agree, that they were most likely a separate species. They came from different lineages, and their anatomy was in some ways different from ours. They are generally thought to have their own history, going back perhaps three quarters of a million years.

Originally, the people who reconstructed them portrayed them as dumb brutes. Certainly, their archaeological culture is not as robust, not as graphic, as that of our own ancestors that might have lived some miles down the road from them, in different caves. On the other hand, their brains were larger than ours.

So could they speak? These were, again, large-brained, super-close cousins of ours; they can be expected to have had a lot of verbal/vocal communication. But — and this is sort of the rub — it was likely not the same as ours. We don’t think that Neanderthals were, for example, able to produce certain of the quantal vowels. Their tongue was more in their mouth; their larynx was higher-up. Initial sounds are made at what’s called the vocal folds or vocal chords — the sound then continues up and is modified by space in our throat, and that’s how we produce the variety of sounds that we can. We don’t think Neanderthals had the same organisation as we do, and likely thus could not produce the same array of sounds with the same rapidity that we can today. I don’t think they had the ability for fully articulate speech.

But did they have complex abilities? Of course — though we’re not sure what they did with them. They don’t seem to have the artwork, they don’t seem, to many of us, to have the physical apparatus to make the same range of sounds that we do. But they had these huge brains. It’s really quite a mystery.

Andrey G. Vyshedskiy

Adjunct Professor, Boston University, whose work spans the intersection of neuroscience, linguistics, primatology, and paleoanthropology

There are five lines of converging evidence pointing to acquisition of modern speech apparatus by 600,000 years ago (that is, before Neanderthals split from humans):

1. The changes in hyoid bone. This small U-shaped bone lies in the front of the neck between the chin and the thyroid cartilage. The hyoid does not contact any other bone. Rather, it is connected by tendons to the musculature of the tongue, and the lower jaw above, the larynx below, and the epiglottis and pharynx behind. The hyoid aids in tongue movement used for swallowing and sound production. Accordingly, phylogenetic changes in the shape of the hyoid provide information on the evolution of the vocal apparatus.

The hyoid bone of a chimpanzee is very different from that of a modern human. The australopith hyoid bone discovered in Dikika, Ethiopia, and dated to 3.3 million years ago closely resembles that of a chimpanzee. The Homo erectus hyoid bone recovered at Castel di Guido, Italy, and dated to about 400,000 years ago reveals the “bar-shaped morphology characteristic of Homo, in contrast to the bulla-shaped body morphology of African apes and Australopithecus.” Neanderthal hyoids are essentially identical to that of a modern human in size and shape; these have been identified in Kebara, Israel and El Sidrón, Spain. At the same time, these are also identical to hyoid of Homo heidelbergensis from Sima de los Huesos, Spain, suggesting that the latter was a direct ancestor of both Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens and had already possessed a nearly modern hyoid bone. The similarities between Neanderthal and modern human hyoid make it likely that the position and connections of the hyoid and larynx were also similar between the two groups.

2. The flexion of the bones of the skull base. Jeffrey Laitman [Ed. note: see above] has observed that the roof of the vocal tract is also the base of the skull, and suggested that evolving vocal tract is reflected in the degree of curvature of the underside of the base of the skull (called basicranial flexion). The skull of Australopithecus africanus dated to 3 million years ago shows no flexing of the basicranium, as is the case with chimpanzees. The first evidence of increased curvature of the base of the basicranium is displayed in Homo erectus from Koobi Fora, Kenya, 1.75 million years ago. A fully flexed, modern-like basicranium is found in several specimen of Homo heidelbergensis from Ethiopia, Broken Hill 1, and Petralona from about 600,000 years ago.

3. Increased voluntary control of respiratory muscles. Voluntary cortical control of respiratory muscles is a crucial prerequisite for complex speech production. Greater cortical control is associated with additional enervation of the diaphragm, that can be detected in fossils as an enlarged thoracic vertebral canal. Homo erectus from 1.5 million years ago (Turkana Boy) has no such enlarged canal, but both modern humans and Neanderthals do, providing converging evidence for acquisition of modern-like vocal apparatus by 600,000 years ago.

4. The anatomy of external and middle ear. Modern humans show increased sensitivity to sounds between 1kHz and 6kHz and particularly between 2kHz and 4kHz. Chimpanzees, on the hand, are not particularly sensitive to sounds in this range. Since species using complex auditory communication systems tend to match their broadcast frequencies and the tuning of perceptual acuity, it was argued that changes in the anatomy of external and middle ear in hominins are indicative of the developing speech apparatus. Data from several Neanderthal and Homo heidelbergensis fossils indicate a modern-human like pattern of sound perception with highest sensitivity in the region around 4kHz, that is significantly different from that of chimpanzees.

5. The evolution of the FOXP2 gene. The most convincing evidence for the timing of the acquisition of the modern speech apparatus is provided by DNA analysis. The FOXP2 gene is the first identified gene that, when mutated, causes a specific language deficit in humans. Patients with FOXP2 mutations exhibit great difficulties in controlling their facial movements, as well as with reading, writing, grammar, and oral comprehension.The protein encoded by the FOXP2 gene is a transcription factor. It regulates genes involved in the production of many different proteins. The FOXP2 protein sequence is highly conserved. There is only one amino acid difference in the chimpanzee lineage going back some 70 million years to the common ancestor with the mouse.

The FOXP2 proteins of chimpanzee, gorilla and rhesus macaque are all identical. This resistance to change suggests that FOXP2 is extraordinarily important for vertebrate development and survival. Interestingly, there is a change of two amino acids in FOXP2 that occurred over the last 6 million years, during the time when the human lineage had split off from the chimpanzee. These two amino acid substitutions predate the human-Neanderthal split. Both amino acid substitutions were found in two Neanderthals from Spain, as well as in Neanderthals from Croatia, and in Denisovans, an extinct Asian hominin group related to Neanderthals. This indicates that Homo heidelbergensis, the common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, already had the two “human specific” amino acid substitutions. Despite evidence of possible further evolution of FOXP2 in Homo sapiens, the comparatively fast mutation rate of FOXP2 in hominins indicates that there was strong evolutionary pressure on development of the speech apparatus before Homo sapiens diverged from Neanderthals over 500,000 years ago.

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