D'Errico on Neandertal language

2 minute read

Edmund Blair Bolles is reporting from the Evolang conference in Barcelona. Unfortunately I had to cancel my presentation there, but it has been great to read these summaries of some of the papers. I wanted to point readers to his account of Francesco D'Errico's talk:

Neanderthals had language comparable to that of Homo sapiens, Bordeaux-based archaeologist Francisco DErrico told participants in the Evolang conference in Barcelona this morning (Saturday, March 15, 2008). This claim totally discards the older Big Bang theory that said language arose only very recently (40 to 75 thousand years ago), and also challenges the Out-of-Africa theory that proposes Homo sapiens emerged in Africa about 200 thousand years ago and spread over the rest of the world, carrying language and culture with the, beginning about 60 thousand years ago. A new history will have to be written.

If you have been reading here, you have seen many of the new perspectives D'Errico is talking about, but together they make a very compelling package. Consider:

1. We now know that australopithecines had ape-like vocal tracts, complete with pharyngeal air sacs.

2. We now know that Middle Pleistocene humans (Atapuerca) had humanlike hyoids, unlike australopithecines, so modern human vocal tract anatomy was plausibly a derived feature of Homo, including Neandertals.

3. We have good evidence of pigment use from MSA Africa and Mousterian Europe. The Neandertals in particular appear to have been coloring skin with manganese crayons.

4. Decorative/ornamental artifacts were manufactured both by MSA Africans and Neandertals.

5. Neandertals shared the modern human-derived FoxP2 variant.

I have some notes on D'Errico's work (with Maria Soressi) on Neandertal pigment use that I'll post later. Given the confluence of the recent evidence from genetics, archaeology, and anatomy, I do not see how anyone can maintain the hypothesis that Neandertals (and presumably, other Late Pleistocene humans) did not have language.

Now, that is not to say that they (or any Late Pleistocene humans) were identical in their linguistic adaptations to living or recent people. I still think that communication is the most likely focus of evolutionary change in the Late Pleistocene -- but a change based within a pre-existing community of language users, not a newly-sprung linguistic skill. In fact, I think the next constructive step should be to characterize the variation in linguistic adaptations in recent people, who are surely not identical to each other. That verges on the subject of my presentation, which -- if you attend the AAPA meetings this spring, you will still get a chance to hear. That is, if you stick around until Saturday!