Voices of the Past

By Alaina Perdon ’22

Environmental Studies major, Anthropology and Chesapeake Regional Studies minors

Brief Description: Both within and outside of the linguistic community, many consider modern humans to be the only beings in the evolutionary line capable of speech. This essay examines the biological and cultural evidence suggesting Neanderthals were capable of complex vocal communication similar to the languages we have today, as well as the implications of this evidence on our understanding of the evolution of language.

The following was written for Language and Culture (ANT 300).

In modern linguistic spheres, the commonly accepted hypothesis on the origin of modern language states that it arose relatively recently, within the last 50 – 100,000 years. This proposal is supported by renowned American linguist Noam Chomsky, who further asserts that language arose “in an instant and perfect form,” with one generation of modern humans spontaneously possessing all the necessary cognitive and physical mechanisms for what we recognize as modern speech (Chomsky 2010). This line of thinking is referred to as the saltationist scenario, in which “saltation” refers to a sudden and large-scale change between generations that usually indicates single-step speciation (Deidu and Levinson 2013). Analysis of the currently available data, however, suggests a gradual evolution of language; early iterations of humans had rudimentary forms of language that were shaped genetically and culturally over time to become the languages we speak today (Deidu and Levinson 2013). While Neanderthals, our early ancestors, are portrayed as an archaic society communicating in grunts and groans, examination of biological and cultural evidence indicates they had both the physical and mental capability to produce a spoken language like that of modern humans. Moreover, artifacts recovered from the Pleistocene Epoch show Neanderthals were capable of symbolic and abstract thought, and shared emotional experiences similar to modern humans. Thus, Neanderthal communication did not only sound like ours, but may have also consisted of a rich and extensive vocabulary. Recognizing the Neanderthals likely possessed a more complex form of communication changes linguists’ perceptions of the origins of language, as it conflicts with the currently accepted saltationist theory and instead suggests a gradual evolution of both culture and genetics. Additionally, it implies a greater cultural depth and richer life experience for Neanderthals than had been previously accepted, which in turn implies greater intellectual and emotional intelligence.

Neanderthals, plainly, are genetically predisposed to language in the same fashion as modern humans. In modern humans, the FOXP2 gene is linked to language uptake and usage. Variants of FOXP2 are found in chimpanzees and other primates; however, a specific addition of two amino acids distinguish the “human version” from those of other animals (Smith 2007). The precise function of FOXP2 is still unknown, but mutations of the gene are linked to language challenges in which the afflicted individual cannot process the conventions of grammar and lacks the ability to control their mouth movements to form words. Thus, it is believed this gene is the biological prerequisite for comprehending and utilizing a spoken language (Smith 2007). The “human” form of the gene was thought to have only arisen with Homo sapiens; all other iterations of early humans were believed to possess the “chimp version” or another archaic form, but an ongoing study at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany has disproven this theory, finding FOXP2 in DNA samples from Neanderthals (Smith 2007). The variant found in Neanderthals includes the two amino acids found in modern samples, making it identical to the modern human gene. Predecessors to Neanderthals, such as H. habilus, lack the additional amino acids; their version of FOXP2 instead resembles what is found in chimpanzees (Smith 2007). This suggests Neanderthals were the first in the evolutionary line to possess the biological elements necessary for complex language, and thus were the first able to participate in spoken linguistic communication.

Beyond genetic encoding, modern communication via spoken language requires “a precise match between the broadcast bandwidth and the tuning of perceptual acuity” in the participating individuals, meaning the physiological features responsible for both production and perception must “match” so that those communicating may both speak and hear the same sounds (Deidu and Levinson 2013). This “match” can be thought of as the preliminary factor for complex linguistic communication. Analyses of cranial remnants from five fossilized individuals found in the Sima de los Huesos archeological site in Spain confirmed the presence of such structures in early humans (Martinez et. al 2004). Archaeologists used 3D CT-scans to reconstruct the anatomy of the specimens’ external and middle ears – the regions responsible for acoustic perception. Once the physical base of these structures was built, a system of electrical circuits was used to model the patterns of sound transmission said structures were capable of perceiving. It was revealed that the hominids had patterns of sound perception matching closely with those of modern humans, meaning they would be capable of hearing human speech – or speech within the same tonal range (Martinez et. al 2004). The hominids studied were not Neanderthals, however, but members of the species H. heidelbergensis, which arose 500,000 years ago in the portion of the genetic line following the genetic split between Neanderthals and H. sapiens (Martinez et. al 2004). While this means the species did not directly predate modern humans, the fact that physical structures capable of perceiving modern human speech were present in species further back in the archaeological record shows the capabilities for modern speech arose much sooner than originally hypothesized, again suggesting this language did not originate with modern humans and instead evolved across species over time. Moreover, later studies of a similar nature also concluded Neanderthals hearing capabilities would have oscillated within the same general range as those of modern humans, though not overlap entirely like H. heidelbergensis (Deidu and Levinson 2013).

Morphology of the Neanderthal mouth and throat indicate they would be capable of reproducing modern human speech sounds, thus would have communicated in a rich spoken language rather than the deep grunts often associated with “cavemen.” The hyoid bone is a horseshoe-shaped bone situated in the upper neck near the base of the jaw and provides support for the tongue during speech (AlJulaih and Menezes 2021). Versions of the hyoid are present in multiple mammal species, but only the human hyoid is positioned to allow the tongue and larynx to work in unison, creating a wider range of speech sounds (Whipps 2008). The presence of a hyoid also indicates a lack of air sacs connected to the vocal tract, which are present in other primates but occupy a region too near to the larynx to allow for the simultaneous existence of a fully-formed hyoid bone. These air sacs limit speech by reducing movement of the larynx and tongue, thus reducing the range of distinctive sounds that can be produced (de Boer 2009). Hyoid bones, and thus a lack of post-laryngeal air sacs, have been found intact in Neanderthal remains in multiple sites throughout Europe, including recent excavations in Kebara, Israel and El Sidrón, Spain. The aforementioned H. heidelbergensis remains also included hyoids (Deidu and Levinson 2013). The structure and placement of the early hominid hyoid bones matched nearly exactly with those of modern humans, indicating their motility and function would have been the same. Hyoids have not been found in remains of H. erectus or other predecessors of the Neanderthal, indicating the Neanderthal would be the first iteration of human ancestor to utilize such a mechanism (Deidu and Levinson 2013). This further indicates Neanderthals would be the first group to communicate in a more complex fashion and affirms the belief that the requisite physical features for modern human speech arose before H. sapiens.

In addition to finer manipulation of the tongue and larynx facilitated by the hyoid, control of respiratory muscles is necessary to produce modern human speech. Every facet of speech is dependent upon this ability, as it makes changes in rate of inhalation and exhalation, inflection, and volume modulation possible. Control of the respiratory muscles originates in modern humans in a region of the brain stem referred to as the autonomous respiratory control center, situated at the base of the brain stem nearest the spine (Fitch 2010). Activation of this region of the brain causes it to enlarge, presenting physically as a large vertebral canal visible in fossils. Recovered Neanderthal thoracic vertebral canals measure within the same size range of those present in living humans, showing they stimulated these muscles by actively controlling their respiratory functions (Deidu and Levinson 2013). Moreover, this feature is also lacking in H. erectus fossils, including the notably well-preserved Nariokotome Boy, again indicating a lack of need for such structures and an inability to behave similarly to modern humans (Fitch 2010). Because the enlarged thoracic vertebral canal indicates not only a presence of the necessary muscle to participate in complex tonal speech but also the continued stimulation of such an area, it follows that Neanderthals were not merely physically capable of making sounds like modern humans, but also actively utilized these capabilities to engage in frequent, complex verbal communication. This suggests the existence of a complex social system necessitating a higher level of communication between members, meaning the cultural foundations for language, too, predated modern human societies.

The ability to engage in a social environment is dependent upon the ability to produce complex thoughts. While an individual organism’s actual intelligence cannot be calculated posthumously, a species’ cognitive capacity can be equated to brain volume, which in turn can be linked to skull size, which can be determined through the examination of fossils. Larger braincases can accommodate larger brains, which would be capable of higher cognitive functions. Assessing the cranial anatomy of Neanderthals, it has been determined that, although the orientation of the braincase within the skull differs, Neanderthal braincases are comparable to those of modern humans – even larger in many fossil samples (Weaver 2009). Comparable brain volumes indicate comparable capacities for intelligence, meaning Neanderthals could have cognitive functions similar to modern humans. For example, a larger brain increases memory capabilities, necessary for participating in linguistic communication. Neonate braincase sizes are also similar between Neanderthals and modern humans, a factor which influences not only intelligence, but also the proceedings of childbirth (Weaver and Hublin 2009). A larger cranium is difficult to pass through a birth canal, complicating the labor process for childbearing individuals. This necessitates assisted childbirth and care of both mother and child following birth, which implies some element of community. Moreover, mammals with large brain sizes develop and mature at a slower rate, meaning young need some form of maternal care for longer periods of time (Lampman 2021).  To safely care for their young, mothers began forming social groups that gave way to the formation of a familial unit or community: not only an environment in which a culture can develop, but also one that demands a form of communication. It is hypothesized by linguists that the first verbal communications originated between mothers and children, as the constant state of being physically close created a fertile environment for linguistic expression (Lampman 2021). By both analyzing fossilized pelvic bones to determine the frequency of pregnancies and examining burial sites and abiotic remains, it has been interpreted that most female Neanderthals birthed multiple young with an average interval of three years between consecutive births, which is similar to the patterns seen in early modern humans (Lalueza-Fox et. al 2011). These family units remained close, often merging with biologically unrelated groups living in close proximity. The average Neanderthal “community” included around 115 individuals, just under those of early modern humans at 145 individuals per group (Deidu and Levinson 2013). Existing in such a large social group places a pressure on the brain to memorize patterns and convey ideas to other individuals, forcing evolution to continually “select for” larger brain sizes and increasing cognitive capabilities (Lampman 2021). Moreover, a shared mode of communication is necessary when living under such conditions, which is made possible by said increased cognitive functions. Thus, the communal living style of Neanderthals not only created the need for spoken language, but also drove the individuals to develop in such a fashion as to make speaking possible.

Evidence of Neanderthals’ higher cognitive functions can be found in their use of tools more complex than those of H. habilus. Their tools were used predominantly for food acquisition and construction, showing their capability to think “several steps ahead” – planning for a need they would have in the future (Lampman 2021). The degree of planning and carrying out successive tasks exemplified in the development of such tools activates the Broca’s area in the brain, a region which is also linked to linguistic communication (Stout and Chaminade 2012). Like the FOXP2 gene, the function of the Broca’s area has been triangulated based on the result of damage suffered to the region. Injuries to this region result in the inability to process sentence syntax or create syntactically correct sentences, indicating the Broca’s area is responsible for logical language production and comprehension (Lampman 2021). Because the Neanderthals were capable of the task planning for which the Broca’s area is responsible, it follows that they could also produce and comprehend sentence syntax, even if said sentences were syntactically simpler than those spoken by modern humans; they had the mental structures in place to utilize spoken language and demonstrated usage of such structures through tool creation and use. The Neanderthals’ tools were also more intricate than those of their predecessors, often combining materials or attaching multiple parts in such a way that they work in tandem. The ability to create more complex tools demonstrates advanced fine motor skills, another cognitive prerequisite for physically forming spoken words. Speech pathologists studying the logistics of speech suggest the chain of precise actions associated with using a food acquisition tool and motility required to carry them out require similar motor control and attentiveness, the former is merely activating a different set of muscles (Stout and Chaminade 2012). Neanderthal tools were also not specific to the individual: the wide scattering of artifacts indicate entire groups used the same type of tool, and unrelated groups possessed similarly functioning tools (Stout and Chaminade 2012). To pass along information about said tools, such as how to construct or use them, Neanderthals needed a means of detailed communication. The structures present in Neanderthal brains allowing for complex tool use also allowed them to form spoken language, while the need to communicate methods of tool construction and use in turn necessitated linguistic development. The archaeological evidence, complex tools found widely across Neanderthal communities, indicates such communications occurred, meaning Neanderthals had developed a spoken language not seen in their predecessors who lacked the same intricate tools.

While there is certainty in the belief that Neanderthals possessed a spoken language, there is still wide speculation as to what their language would have sounded like. This hypothesis does not indicate that the words formed by Neanderthals directly translated to words found in modern languages; rather, that similar sounds could have been made based on the morphology of the Neanderthals’ mouths and throats as compared with modern humans.  Because of the structures present in Neanderthals, such as the hyoid bone, it is assumed they were capable of the speech modulation techniques modern humans now employ, such as changing pitch, stressing certain syllables, and creating a wide range of vowel sounds (Deidu and Levinson 2013). It is speculated that their language included features akin to those of small traditional societies today: a wide array of distinctive sounds, some degree of grammar rules, irregularity between subgroups and individuals, and robust vocabularies (Deidu and Levinson 2013). Because their communities tended to be isolated from one another, it is further hypothesized that there were distinct languages for each group, precisely like the regionality of language seen in modern times. Furthermore, these small, isolated groups would foster a faster development of language because of the high frequency of interface between individuals; more complex languages tend to be spoken by smaller groups (Lupyan and Dale 2010). Ultimately, there was not one universal Neanderthal language, but a range of rich languages spoken across different groups. It is possible that some of these languages slowly morphed into the earliest iterations of modern human speech; however, the more likely scenario based on evidence is that interactions between Neanderthals and early H. sapiens – who possessed their own rudimentary language as well – formed pidgins that in turn evolved to give way to modern human speech, thus creating a view of linguistic evolution far more complex than that which was originally theorized.

Acknowledgement of the fact that Neanderthals were participating in speech like modern humans alters how anthropologists conceptualize the foundations of language. Such a fact contradicts the previously accepted saltationist scenario and instead supports a gradual evolution of both biological and cultural evolution pertaining to language. It is evident that language developed over time; the physical and cognitive structures necessary for speech production arose in the Neanderthal species and were stimulated by continual use. The pressures placed on Neanderthal individuals by their continually advancing culture necessitated a form of communication and fostered an environment in which it could form, creating a positive evolutionary feedback loop in which constant stimulation led the existing structures to develop further and make grander linguistic interaction possible. Viewing language as a gradually evolving facet of life rather than a spontaneously-arising trait also alters perceptions of modern human language not as the “endpoint” of evolution, but another stage in an ongoing evolutionary process. This paradigm shift also alters the way in which modern society views Neanderthals as a culture. The theory that Neanderthals “spoke” in simple grunting sounds enforces the theatrical, brutish perception of “cavemen” many hold today. Participation in a complex spoken linguistic society implies a greater cultural depth and richer life experience, as well as a greater capacity for intelligence than commonly thought. If Neanderthals spoke in a more advanced fashion than previously thought – as both biological and cultural evidence suggests – they are even less so removed from modern humans. They could hold conversations, although perhaps only in the most basic sense of the term, communicating their needs, wants, and perhaps even emotions. Though we do not yet know what Neanderthal voices sounded like, their mode of communication was not unlike our own, and qualifying it as language radically changes how we view both their culture and our relation to it.

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