Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Study: Neandertal Speech and Language Abilities Like Modern Humans

Science Daily has a story on Neandertal speech.  Work by Dan Didiu and Stephen Levinson suggests that Neandertals and modern humans share a common ancestry with regard to the use of language.  Science Daily writes:
Dediu and Levinson review all these strands of literature and argue that essentially modern language and speech are an ancient feature of our lineage dating back at least to the most recent ancestor we shared with the Neandertals and the Denisovans (another form of humanity known mostly from their genome). Their interpretation of the intrinsically ambiguous and scant evidence goes against the scenario usually assumed by most language scientists, namely that of a sudden and recent emergence of modernity, presumably due to a single -- or very few -- genetic mutations. This pushes back the origins of modern language by a factor of 10 from the often-cited 50 or so thousand years, to around a million years ago -- somewhere between the origins of our genus, Homo, some 1.8 million years ago, and the emergence of Homo heidelbergensis. This reassessment of the evidence goes against a saltationist scenario where a single catastrophic mutation in a single individual would suddenly give rise to language, and suggests that a gradual accumulation of biological and cultural innovations is much more plausible..
I am still a bit “iffy” on the whole “common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals” thing since some are trying to argue for a common ancestor based on the material from the Gran Dolina, in Spain, and it sure as all get out looks like modern humans originated in Northeast Africa at, or near, Herto. I have a tendency to think that there was a good deal of panmixia throughout Europe and north Africa.  Otherwise, we are required to believe that there was a species split at H. antecessor into what became modern humans (how'd they get to north Africa?) on one side and Neandertals on the other and that, some 700 to 720 thousand years later, emerging moderns and Neandertals encountered one another and interbred.  That is overly simplistic, I am sure but it seems far-fetched.  It seems easier to argue that the H. antecessor material represents an archaic Homo sapiens population that was the precursor (or something like it was) to later archaics, such as Petralona and Atapuerca, out of which Neandertals came.  Then the Neandertals interbred with the north-moving moderns and somewhere in there, the Denisova population split off.  The panmixia in Europe, western Asia and Russia explains why moderns have both Neandertal and Denisovan genes, along with the modern genes that originated in North Africa.  Subsequent swamping of the archaic genome led to the demise of both the Neandertals and Denisovans.   

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