Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Could Neanderthals Speak?

with 9 comments

I had an interesting debate the other day. Could Neanderthals speak? For the longest time the answer was “No!” However, this was more based on prejudice than anything else. IE when Neanderthals were first discovered it was more or less assumed they were a brutish forebear to humans. The quintessential ape-man as it were, basically because the were discovered and described in the early/mid nineteenth century at a time when it was assumed that humans were the apex of creation and nothing else approached us. And the view that Neanderthals couldn’t speak was reinforced by lack of any evidence that they even had the physical capability of speech.

In recent decades however the debate has been re-opened. For one thing an intact Neanderthal hyoid bone was found. This is a bone in the larynx, and it was essentially identical to a human’s, indicating they could make a wide range of sounds. Another recent discovery was of their ear bones, again, it indicated they could discern a wide range of sounds, substantially different than a chimpanzee for example. And it was pointed out that the nerve channel that led to their tongue was similar in size to a human’s, indicating they had the ability to shape a variety of sounds with their tongue. Lastly it was discovered that they had a gene called FOXP2, in humans this gene appears to be essential for speech. This of course doesn’t prove Neanderthals had complex language, but it certainly shows there is no reason they couldn’t, they had the physical capability to make and hear the sounds required for a complex language.

Other arguments for Neanderthal language are their tool use and lifestyles. Especially their hunting, Neanderthals were definitely apex predators, bringing down very large game in group hunts. Though recently it has been discovered they often did have veges with their meat. It has been argued that the complexity of some of their tool-making  tasks, let alone hunting large dangerous animals, would have require complex language. Still, prides of lions and other carnivores bring down large game in group hunts without language, so it’s certainly not definitive. Other arguments include recently discovered cave paintings by Neanderthals, and what has been interpreted as a flute made by Neanderthals. The flute (pictured above) may have just been a  gnawed bone though.

There are still strong arguments against the Neanderthals having complex language. For one thing they were around for several hundred thousand years but made almost no technological progress during that time. Unlike Cro-Magnons, who lived in groups of 30 or more, Neanderthals lived in small and apparently isolated bands of about ten people. There is no evidence that Neanderthals engage in anything resembling trade or other long distance commerce, which humans were fully engaged in starting at least 150,000 years ago. Only a very small number of tools found at Neanderthal sites originated other than locally, and even those few were never from more than 100km (60 miles) away. It’s been argued that these were “gifts” by adolescents trying to ingratiate themselves into a new group, there had to have been some interbreeding between groups. Nonetheless Neanderthal’s apparently primitive, isolated, and non-evolving culture does argue that Neanderthals didn’t have complex language.

The jury is still out on the issue. Basically the debate is about whether Neanderthals were another species, or another race. They did have larger brains than us, though they were structured somewhat differently. It’s been argued that compared to humans, Neanderthals were extremely neophobic, dogmatic and xenophobic. Afraid of anything new, afraid of strangers, and stuck in their ways. Yes, Neanderthals were the Archie Bunkers of prehistory.

So myself, I prefer to think they had language. If nothing else, imagine the sit-com one could base on it, a band of surly cavemen sitting around suspicious of everything:  “If it was good enough for your great great great great great grandfather, it’s good enough for you son!” or “No you can’t date that Cro-Magnon boy, those people have no respect for tradition!”

Feel free to add your own. Have a great weekend everyone.

(The above image is from Wikipedia, so I’m assuming it’s OK to use non-commercially. And yes, there is a middle ground between complex language and no language, but I can only cover so much in 800 words or so.)


Written by unitedcats

September 21, 2012 at 7:46 am

9 Responses

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  1. They said that Neandertal didn’t and couldn’t breed with homo sapiens, but then came the DNA and lo & behold Northern Europeans have up to 5% Neandertall DNA… Certianly doesn’t mean anything though…


    September 21, 2012 at 9:26 am

  2. I assume they had language. Another point I would like to make: The scientific world seems to assume that cave paintings were religious in nature. Does it occur to anyone besides me that maybe they just enjoyed drawing the world around them much like we do?

    Lee Whittaker

    September 22, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    • I agree that I think a lot of interpretation of prehistoric stuff seems to involve a lot of projection. You’re not the first one, others in the field have made remarks about how it’s interesting that if we don’t know what something is, why, “It’s a ritual object!” By the same token, fossils and fossilised bones found in ancient Greek sites were ignored till recently, because of course they couldn’t have known what they were, therefore they must have been more or less random. Now we know the ancient Greeks and Romans did indeed realize that fossil bones were once livign creatures, and gave significance to them. Even our best see things through their own pre-conceptions. This is why I try to approach things from original principles, figure there’s some chance I will avoid some obvious prejudices. —Doug


      September 22, 2012 at 7:10 pm

  3. I see that you are wondering if they made sounds because it is possible they had language without spoken sound..
    There are many culture of human kind that had non spoken communication.
    All creatures have some form of language that allows them to communicate.


    September 23, 2012 at 3:36 pm

  4. Most likely they could speak.. Its only logical.

    And to NOT think they could speak is some sort of supremacy bias. Heck, it seems all higher order predators can communicate verbally… we may not understand it ourselves, which makes me wonder how smart we really are.

    John Galt

    September 24, 2012 at 1:07 am

  5. The origins of human language are still a complete mystery at this point, and while animals have extremely complex abilities to communicate, none of them can learn English and have a conversation with us. Until we come across a live Neanderthal, or make amazing progress in understanding the origins and nature of language and how it’s connected to brain structure, Neanderthals may have been little more than very clever tool using chimps. And if they were fully capable of learning English and talking about the wonders of the universe with us … their extinction is one of our race’s greatest tragedies. And if we had a hand in it, it might be humanity’s greatest crime. —Doug


    September 24, 2012 at 7:25 pm

  6. I think that the most important thing in this topic is mentioned in the beginning of your article – the physical capability of Neanderthals to speak. Few years ago, I’ve read an article covering this issue (of course, it may be outdated now due to scientific progress) and the author was dealing with their physical attributes and structure of their larynx, tongue etc.. There was a hypothesis, that they were communicating by hissing, growling, grunting and by making various guttural sounds (which are still present in some cultures), because they were unable to make complex sounds and syllables. Anyway, I agree that it’s hard to confirm any of these theories and until they are proved somehow, it all remains a mystery.


    October 4, 2012 at 9:13 am

  7. […] have learned English and conversed with us? I’ve blogged about the Neanderthal speech debate here. If Neanderthals buried their dead as humans do, wouldn’t this mean they also believed in an […]

  8. Great post concerning an issue I’ve long been interested in as well. Recent scientific discoveries I’ve read about indicate that the Neanderthals were fantastically more advanced than ever imagined; even capable of Television broadcasts! Their call-sign? FOX P2.

    Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself. Vilify me if you will, but science should also be FUN! :-)

    Johnny B

    February 17, 2013 at 9:20 am

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