In contrast to common sense notions of Neanderthals as dumb apes, living without culture in the distant past, recent research makes this human ancestor seem more complex than previously thought.
One recent study analyzed DNA found inside the mouths of five different Neanderthals recovered from El Sidron cave in Spain, Spy Cave in Belgium and Breuil Grotta in Italy.
Scientists extracted traces of poplar from one El Sidron individual’s teeth. This Neanderthal might have been treating a toothache with herbal medicine; according to the authors of the study, published in the April 2017 issue of Nature, poplar “contains the natural pain-killer salicylic acid (the active ingredient in aspirin).”
The different Neanderthal groups also had very different diets. At the cave in Spain, where the Neanderthal herbalist was found, no signs of meat eating were discovered. Instead, it looks like the Neanderthals there ate mostly mushrooms, forest moss and pine nuts.
In Belgium, however, the primary diet consisted of wooly rhinos and sheep. This suggests that Neanderthals did not simply follow one behavioral pattern, but adapted their behavior to local conditions.
Neanderthals also made stone tools that involved complex, multi-step techniques. More recently, researchers have even documented interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.
All of these discoveries have led some linguists to wonder whether Neanderthals also used language.
Searching For The Origins Of Language
One model in linguistics describes two conceptions of language in order to avoid confusion and ambiguity.
The first of these is called “Faculty of language—broad sense,” or FLB for short. The other is called “Faculty of Language—narrow sense,” or FLN. As its name suggests, FLB is broader than FLN, and includes all of the general human abilities related to language, like the physical ability to speak and the ability to connect meanings to symbols.
FLN is only used to refer to the abstract, computational aspects of human language.
Some linguists have argued that the capacities that FLB comprises may be shared with some of humanity’s ancestors, Neanderthals in particular. They recognize, however, that Neanderthals might not have possessed all of the aspects of FLN. According to this hypothesis, if Neanderthals had FLB, it would demonstrate a possible evolutionary history of language, in which FLB was a precursor to the uniquely human and more complex FLN.
Since language is not physical, and therefore can’t be found inside a Neanderthal grave, researchers looking for evidence of language would need to find stand-ins, like all of the recent discoveries made about Neanderthals discussed above. The use of tools, the ability to adapt their diet to different environments and genetic evidence pointing to interbreeding with humans suggest that Neanderthals possessed advanced cognitive abilities and were physically similar to humans.
However, many linguists and paleontologists strongly contest the theory that Neanderthals possessed anything comparable to human language.
They point out that the cognitive skills necessary for language are quite different from those required to make tools. They also caution against drawing too many conclusions from the shared genetics of humans and Neanderthals.
Those that argue in favor of Neanderthal language point to DNA evidence showing that Neanderthals possessed the gene FOXP2, a gene associated with human language. But our understanding of FOXP2 is still limited. It may be connected to the ability to physically make sounds, but not language.
According to some biologists, there are likely many other genes that are also responsible for the human language faculty.
Since there is no smoking gun that can definitively say whether Neanderthals had language or not, no consensus exists either among linguists or paleontologists. Multiple interpretations of the data are possible, so the debate will likely continue.
Sources and Further Reading
- Alex, B. Could Neanderthals Speak? The Ongoing Debate Over Neanderthal Language. Discover, November 5, 2018.
- Berwick, R. C., & Chomsky, N. (2017). Why only us? Journal of Neurolinguistics. 43, Part B, 166-177.
- Dediu, D., & Levinson, S. C. (2018). Neanderthal language revisited: not only us. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. 21, 49-55.
- Dediu, D., Levinson, S. C. (2013). On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neandertal linguistic capacities and its consequences. Frontiers in Psychology. 4 (397).
- Weyrich, L. S., et al. (2017). Neanderthal behavior, diet, and disease inferred from ancient DNA in dental calculus. Nature. 544, 357-361.