Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Posts Tagged ‘Neanderthal

Could Neanderthals Speak?

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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

The Mask of la Roche-Cotard

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Continuing with my “strange old things” theme, here we have the Mask of la Roche-Cotard. Unlike our previous rock, this rock has been shaped by human (well, Neanderthal) hands. It’s a piece of flint about 4 inches (10 cm) tall and wide, and through a natural hole under the “nose” a piece of bone was driven and then wedged in place with two rock splinters. The shape of the original rock was further modified by chipping away to increase its resemblance to, well, something. A human face or an animal face maybe? It was made about 33,000 years ago in France, most likely by Neanderthals of the Mousterian Culture.

Is it really a face? Who knows. It seems pretty clear to me that it was deliberately created, but even that is subject to debate. If one was just throwing useless bits of bone and flint into a pile, something like this could come about by chance I suppose. The bone piece seems pretty deliberate to me though with the wedges holding it in place. And when it was new, the “eyes” would have been whiter and more noticeable. Still, some have claimed that it is not representational at all, and in fact it had some as yet undetermined practical use. In this case the resemblance to a face would have been accidental, and maybe not even noticed by the Neanderthals using the item.

So what is the significance of this discovery? Well, some background. The whole Neanderthal thing is  a mystery. The Neanderthals were our brothers, in fact it was only a few hundred thousand years ago that humans and Neanderthals diverged from a  common ancestor. Humans and Neanderthals didn’t have a whole lot of contact, but in some places we lived in close proximity for thousands of years. They made stone tools, buried their dead, and were really into eating meat. They may have had language, ornamentation such as body paint and jewellery, and music. They definitely interbred with humans, the gentle reader no doubt has at least some Neanderthal DNA in him or her. So the big question remains, could a human have sat down with a Neanderthal and had a philosophical discussion, or were they little more than tool using apes?

And this is what the Mask of la Roche-Cotard may hint at. If it was made by a Neanderthals as a representation of a face, it shows a cognizance of self identity that animals simply don’t possess. In fact I would argue that it shows that Neanderthals were human in every sense of the word. Were they?  My suspicion is that they were human, and this mask is an example of such.  I think it was just kids playing around, or an adult playing with kids, in either case it was someone constructing this to impress, maybe even as a joke, their fellows. It’s also possible that it was made by a single Neanderthal genius, and not representational of the typical Neanderthal.

Will we ever really know? In regards to this particular artifact, probably not. Still, our relationship with Neanderthals is important. They were both our brothers … and aliens. How we related to them may be a harbinger of how we will relate to true aliens if we ever meet them. It’s still not known why the Neanderthal line failed and our line thrived. Their brains were as large as ours, maybe even larger. Yet somehow they never made it out of the Stone Age, the last ones disappearing just as humans were starting to make cave art. The Neanderthals didn’t even cave art, this mask may be the only self portrait of a Neanderthal that we will ever have.

I think that’s both amazing and sad.

(The above image is claimed as Public Domain under US copyright light, the original creator of the work having been dead some 30,000 years.)



Written by unitedcats

April 12, 2011 at 8:03 am