Monday, October 7, 2013

On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neandertal linguistic capacities and its consequences

This article from July discusses the emergence of language in archaic humans and whether Neanderthals would have been capable of speech.  The traditional view has been that language is a uniquely human trait, however, Dediu and Levinson believe that Neanderthals and Denisovans may have shared some traits with early humans related to speech and language.  They hypothesize that the common ancestor of Neanderthals and humans already had many of the morphological and genetic features necessary for language to develop. They examined evidence from a number of fields including archaeology, genetics, and morphology.  For example, the FOXP2 gene in humans is related to speech and language and is almost identical to the copy found in Neanderthals; in fact, all of the variation found in Neanderthals can also be found in humans.  Furthermore, they point to the evidence for interbreeding, contact, and exchange of technology between humans and Neanderthals as well as evidence of a Neanderthal culture including burial of the dead as circumstantial evidence that they may have possessed a simplified language system.  The scientists also think that language likely emerged gradually through small cultural and evolutionary developments rather than all at once as has been hypothesized.  The model they propose suggests that early modern humans in Europe and Asia may have even been influenced by the languages of Neanderthals and Denisovans respectively.  In the future, they hope that analysis of linguistics and comparisons between African (which should have no evidence of influence from archaic humans), European, and Asian languages will shed light on this topic.

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