The language of the Denisova hominin

Mar 25, 2010 by

ScienceNOW has recently reported a newly made discovery of a new type of a human-like creature: a finger bone has been discovered at Denisova Cave in Russia’s Altai Mountains and dated to between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago. Although both anatomically modern humans (homo sapiens) and Neanderthals inhabited this area around that time, the newly discovered bone did not belong to a member of either species. The evidence for this comes from a study of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of a sample from the new-found bone and mtDNA of 54 living people from around the world, of a roughly 30,000-year-old modern human from another Russian site and of six Neandertals. Surprisingly, “the Denisova hominin differed at an average of 385 positions from modern humans and 376 from Neandertals” (for comparison: “Neandertals differ from modern humans at an average of 202 nucleotide positions in the mitochondrial genome”).

I’ve been asked what language the Denisova hominin spoke. At this point, it is not clear that s/he spoke any language at all, even though its dating to about 48,000-30,000 years ago is well within the time frame for human language (it is estimated that human language arose between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, depending on the estimate). Nor is it clear whether Neanderthals – the rough contemporaries of the Denisova hominin – had language.

Scientists today associate language ability in humans with changes in two single letters of the DNA code, which arose in the last 200,000 or so years of human evolution. They eventually spread throughout the human population along with our unique capacity for speech. These two point mutations became known as the FOXP2 gene. Linguists argued for a genetic basis of language since 1960s, and research done by Myrna Gopnik of McGill University on a British family many of whose members had trouble with grammatical aspects of language supported the view that capacity for speech (or the lack thereof) is an inherited characteristics. Further genetic research identified the specific “language gene” and showed that humans have it and chimps do not.

Yet, recent work on the Neanderthal genome threw a spanner into the works! According to 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”), two Neanderthals from El Sidrón (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.)”. However, this 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.

In short, the jury is still out on the issue of whether Neanderthals had language.

Returning now to the Denisova hominin, the genetic study reported in ScienceNOW does not – and cannot – provide an answer to the question of whether this third type of human had the FOXP2 mutation (à la modern humans and Neanderthals) or not (à la chimps and other primates). To solve this mystery, the study of mtDNA must be supplemented by a study of autosomal DNA, in particular of the chromosome 7, where the FOXP2 gene resides in modern humans. But even if the Denisova hominin will be shown to have the same version of the FOXP2 gene as homo sapiens, it does not necessarily prove the existence of language in this species, just as the presence of a human-like FOXP2 gene in Neanderthals does not prove that they spoke anything like a human language.

So until more is known, the Denisova hominin will remain a “silent species”, able to speak to scientists only in the letters of the DNA code.


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