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Neanderthals May Have Shared Speech And Language With Modern Humans
Posted: 10 July 2013 07:52 AM   [ Ignore ]
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According to this piece, language may be far older than previously though:

A new study from the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics argues ... that modern language and speech are an ancient feature of our lineage dating back to at least the most recent ancestor modern humans share with Neanderthals and Denisovans ... If the new theory is correct, this pushes the origins of modern language back by a factor of 10 from the currently held threshold of 50 or so thousand years to around one million years ago ... The archaeological record and recent genetic data reveals that modern humans spreading out of Africa interacted both genetically and culturally with both Neanderthals and Denisovans. If our bodies carry around some of their genes, say the researchers, perhaps our languages preserve traces of their languages as well.. 

which, if we shared language with Neanderthals and Denisovans, wrecks even the faintest possibility of finding the “proto-world” language. Though I can’t believe that it would be possible to identify anything in any current language that would be clearly “Neanderthal”.

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Posted: 10 July 2013 09:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I don’t think I’ll go far wrong in predicting this will be demolished soon at Language Log just like this.  Neanderthals are catnip for overreaching theories.

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Posted: 10 July 2013 10:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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My thoughts, too:

Admittedly Neanderthals had disappeared from the scene a few thousand years earlier than PIE is supposed to have existed, but if you want to go backwards in time, well, Neanderthals interbred with early humans so maybe part of their communication system was absorbed into our speech.

Another protolanguage thread

But who can say for sure, anyway?

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Posted: 10 July 2013 11:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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From the article:

this pushes the origins of modern language back by a factor of 10 from the currently held threshold of 50 or so thousand years to around one million years ago

(She means by a factor of twenty.) I don’t know if the new theory can really hold water as far as Neanderthals. I’m all in favor of believing it and in pushing back in evolutionary history the some of the skills we recognize as inherently human. For example, this statement provides some intrigue:

The team’s conclusions go against the prevailing scenario believed by most language scientists – namely, that of a sudden and recent emergence of modernity, presumably due to a single – or very few – genetic mutations.

What I do know is that there is little controversy that homo sapiens of 50,000 years ago were anatomically indistinguishable from modern humans. It makes little sense to believe that all the equipment for making speech was in place (brain, jaw, larynx, etc.) for well over a 100,000 years prior to that and suddenly people started talking. It would be like arguing that we developed the opposable thumb for about a half million years and then figured out what to use it for.

Although, for years my family and everybody else in the neighborhood had these worship-shrines sitting in our driveways. We didn’t know what to call them, and for that matter we didn’t even know why we called that strip of concrete a “driveway.” (In older parts of town they were just dirt areas.) Anyway, all we knew was that tradition told us we had to keep filling up the four round rubber things with compressed air, and that we had to “wax and polish” the painted areas on the outside. Then one day I was digging up some gold in the basement and I found a jar with a flat shiny object in it. It had teeth, and a little round label that said “De Soto” on it. “That’s funny,” I thought, “that’s the same symbol as on the worship-shrine. I wonder if ...” Well, the rest is history. We’ve started calling them “Carrrs” because that’s the sound they make when you start them on a cold morning: “Carrr-arrr-arrr.” Who knows where they came from. They sure make life easier.

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Posted: 10 July 2013 01:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I’m not sure the reporter is accurately characterizing the views of “most language scientists.” For one thing, the date most commonly thrown about for the beginning of language is 150–200,000 years ago, not 50,000. And virtually all linguists will heavily caveat any such a date with “this is a sophisticated guess, we really don’t know.” The error bar on this date has always been known to be extremely wide. Pushing it back half a million years, though, is indeed further than most would take it.

And the idea that “modernity” emerged out of a few genetic changes is by no stretch a consensus opinion. This is a hotly debated topic, not only among linguists but also anthropologists and biologists. Lots of ideas, both rooted in genetics and in environmental influences, are thrown about. While many have their pet hypotheses that they go to bat for, no reputable scientist will insist that their hypothesis is anywhere close to a certainty.

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Posted: 17 July 2013 01:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I remember showing this image to a few friends and asking what they thought her ethnicity was. It was a link to wikipedia images from their main neanderthal entry then but has now been deleted. I found the photo again, obviously.

“Reconstruction of a Neanderthal child from Gibraltar (Anthropological Institute, University of Zürich)” This wouldn’t link for reasons of creative commons.

The swept hairstyle has to be speculative, however, and the teeth probably not too hot when/if she ever smiled. She hardly conforms to neanderthal stereotypes and I can see why I have 4 per cent of her DNA. Her appearance doesn’t mean she could speak but it gives pause considering the old knuckle-dragging, heavy-browed perception, with the former apparently based on the skeleton of a very old fellow suffering from what we now know was terrible arthritis. Those comments are completely unscientific.

[ Edited: 17 July 2013 01:40 PM by venomousbede ]
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Posted: 17 July 2013 03:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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That image isn’t surprising and doesn’t tell us much. Many evolutionary biologists, Stephen Jay Gould among them, have proposed that much of modern human development has been the retention of what were juvenile features in our ancestors. So one would expect that a juvenile Neanderthal might resemble a modern human rather closely, while an adult would appear strikingly different.

Getting way beyond my comfort zone with this topic, though, so I may be way off base.

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Posted: 17 July 2013 05:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I think you’re right that the differences between sapiens and Neandertals would be less apparent in children than in adults (Asimov’s “Ugly Little Boy” probably wouldn’t be so ugly) but I think a lot of paleoanthropologists would disagree with “strikingly different”.  If a Neandertal in modern dress (including shave & haircut) got on the bus, you might notice him as a rather tough-looking customer, but it’s very unlikely you’d think “not human”.

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Posted: 17 July 2013 09:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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There used to be (and may still be, for I know) a US TV show called “World Class Wrestling” or some such. Examination of the DNA of the performers on that show might provide insights into the genealogy of self-styled homo sapiens

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Posted: 17 July 2013 10:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I was watching a tv programme a few months back about genetic migration which showed that Eddie Izzard’s DNA is 2.8% Neanderthal, an unusally high percentage.  This is the most Neanderthal photo of Mr Izzard that I could find - not very convincing, I know, but still.

http://ricochet.com/main-feed/Eddie-Izzard-Is-More-Neanderthal-than-Most

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Posted: 18 July 2013 04:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Dr. Techie - 17 July 2013 05:41 PM

If a Neandertal in modern dress (including shave & haircut) got on the bus, you might notice him as a rather tough-looking customer, but it’s very unlikely you’d think “not human”.

But Neanderthals were also humans.

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Posted: 18 July 2013 04:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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My understanding is the anthropological community is split, with some calling them Homo neanderthalensis, a separate species, and some classifying them as a subspecies, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, in which case you could call them “human.” (Modern humans are Homo sapiens sapiens.) They’re pretty closely related to us either way, and what you call them doesn’t increase or lessen that distance.

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Posted: 18 July 2013 09:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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A poster in the thread I linked earlier said,

If Neaderthals were a different species they couldn’t have fertile children with a homo sapien partner.  Same species, different race.

I’m no geneticist: is this true?

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Posted: 19 July 2013 12:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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If two species have diverged from a common ancestor and have become geographically separated, they may still retain the ability to interbreed. An example is grizzly bears and polar bears which are closely-related but distinct species. In general their geographic ranges are distinct so the opportunity to interbreed is minimal, nevertheless hybrids can and do occur.

The currently most favoured theory regarding Neanderthals seems to be that they and we are closely related species with a common ancestor but that Neanderthals were an earlier migration out of Africa than us and therefore the two populations were able to evolve independently but still had the capacity to interbreed when they met up after the H sapiens migration from Africa.

Inability to interbreed is also a mechanism that keep species separate (even if they share a geographical range). The obvious example is horses and donkeys, which are closely enough related to be in the same genus, but have differing numbers of chromosomes in their cell nuclei and although they are able to interbreed, the chromosomes can’t pair up properly and the resulting mule is (almost always) infertile.

[ Edited: 19 July 2013 12:40 AM by Dr Fortran ]
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Posted: 19 July 2013 02:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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I wouldn’t mind asking Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute if we can know for certain that the Neanderthal DNA was compatible. The gene sequencing he’s been involved with has necessarily been of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), and spelling it is about all the expertise I have in molecular biochemistry. The mtDNA isn’t the same as the famous double helix in the cell nucleus. No doubt the likelihood of incompatibility is extremely small, given the relatively short period of separation―a half million years versus several million years for horses and donkeys or humans and chimps, where there is a difference in the number of chromosomes.

Taxonomic distinctions were created before DNA analysis was available and I suspect taxonomies are being reorganized throughout the plant and animal worlds. Coyotes, wolves, and dogs are a good example of the difficulty. Are they separate species or the same with different subspecies? Apparently coyotes and wolves are now breeding in the northeastern US. It seems a mystery why species that are genetically compatible and have lived alongside each other for a million years have maintained their separation. Wolves and coyotes have very different personalities from what I know*, and different habits, but not different enough to prevent intermixing when survival pressures are applied in semi-urban areas.

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/32976657/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/coyote-wolf-new-breed-predator/

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/11/111107-hybrids-coyotes-wolf-virginia-dna-animals-science/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coywolf

*Coyotes seem to exhibit an utter disregard for human presence in areas where shooting is illegal. Wolves, like mountain lions, are extremely cautious.

[ Edited: 19 July 2013 02:40 AM by Iron Pyrite ]
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Posted: 19 July 2013 08:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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To explicitly address Eliza’s question: the ability to produce fertile offspring is often used as a rule of thumb for whether populations should be considered the same or different species, but as Iron Pyrite and Dr Fortran indicate, it’s not a hard-and-fast bright line.  The divergence of species is a gradual, continuous process and inevitably there will be periods of ambiguity.

Note to Iron Pyrite: although Pääbo’s work started with mitochondrial DNA (as work on fossil DNA almost always does, because it is more plentiful than nuclear DNA), in recent years his group and others have moved on to nuclear DNA, and the virtually the entire Neandertal genome has been sequenced.

Since mitochodrial DNA is inherited only via the ovum (IMHO there must be some rare “leakage” of sperm mitochondria into the zygote but AFAIK the incidence of this has never been determined), the presence of a Neandertal contribution to the modern human mitochondrial gene pool implies that at least some of the crossbreeding must have been Neanderthal female x sapiens male.  I don’t know if it’s been possible to determine if the modern Y-chromosome pool contains Neandertal contributions, which would establish the converse coupling.

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