Were the Neandertal a symbolic species?

Oct 18, 2010 by

While earlier research painted the Neanderthal, our evolutionary cousins, as brutish and dumb, more recent research credits them not only with physical strength and endurance but with “modern behavior”, such as making sophisticated tools and fashioning jewelry. The latter in particular is important as it is often taken to be a sign of symbolic expression. There’s but a short step from jewelry to language. Some recent research, for example, the article published by Johannes Krause and his colleagues in 2007 in Current Biology 17: 1908-1912 (“The derived FOXP2 variant of modern humans was shared with Neandertals”) even claims that the Neanderthal had language — based on genetic evidence.

Very specific changes in just two single letters of the DNA code on chromosome 7 are said to be associated with language ability in humans. According to the standard view, these changes arose in the last 200,000 or so years of human evolution and then eventually spread throughout the human population along with our unique capacity for speech. These two point mutations became known as the FOXP2 gene. Importantly, while humans have the “language gene”, the chimps do not.

Krause et al. claim that two Neanderthals from the El Sidrón site in Spain had the same FOXP2 mutations as modern humans do, which led these researches to conclude that

“these two amino acid substitutions […] associated with the emergence of fully modern language ability… were probably inherited both by Neanderthals and modern Sapiens from their last common ancestor (300,000 to 400,000 years B.P.)”

Note that if Krause et al. are correct, the FOXP2 gene must be a lot older than previously believed. Thus, Krause et al.’s hypothesis is still highly debated. For instance, Antonio Benítez-Burraco, Víctor M. Longa, Guillermo Lorenzo & Juan Uriagereka in a 2008 article in Biolinguistics 2(2): 225–232 (“Also sprach Neanderthalis… Or Did She?”) propose three alternative explanations for Krause et al.’s findings:

(1) the mutations could be selected in Neanderthal’s genetic endowment, but for some nonlinguistic function; (2) they could be present, but unselected; or (3) they could be transferred into Neanderthals from modern humans through gene flow.

Regardless of the genetic arguments, it is now less than clear whether Neaderthals were as smart as previously believed. A study published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences throws a wrench into the works of the Neanderthal’s smarts. The study conducted by a team led by dating expert Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom concludes that the archaeological layers at the celebrated site, the Grotte du Renne (literally “reindeer cave”) at Arcy-sur-Cure in central France, are so mixed up that ornaments and tools once attributed to Neandertals could actually be the work of modern humans, who lived in the same cave at a later date.

So much more work is needed before we can tell for sure whether the Neaderthal girl (see picture above) might have adorned herself with primitive jewelry or spoke a language.

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