Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Posts Tagged ‘prehistory

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

If humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, why did it take so long for them to develop civilization and modern technology?

with 11 comments

This was asked on Yahoo Answers the other day, with a secondary question as well: Is it possible that humans did develop modern technology and civilization sometime during this epoch and we don’t know about it yet? I’ll answer the second question first, because it’s easy. No, there is zero chance that humans developed a technological civilization in the prehistoric past that is now completely unknown to us. That’s because anything resembling a modern industrialized society would have left unmistakable traces in ice cores and sediment layers around the planet. Not to mention basic artifacts … or sunken ships.  Thousands of shipwrecks have been found by modern treasure hunters, none of which has a mysterious origin. Yes, Atlantis is a fairy tale.

The first question is a bit trickier though. Anatomically modern humans have been around about 200,000 years, yet they only began to exhibit a suite of “modern” behaviours some 50,000 years ago, and not until about 10,000 years ago did they discover agriculture and start to build cities and civilizations. How is this possible? Granted the person asking the question was likely trying to make some lame point in order to support the young Earth creationist fable, but it is still an interesting question. Why indeed did it take our ancestors so long to invent modern society?

Well, I can make a number of conjectures. The first and most obvious is that while humans appear to be modern some 200,000 years ago, all that means is that their skeletons were the same as modern humans. Maybe there was some crucial but subtle brain change that had to be made before humans became “modern.” Someday we might find a 100,000 year old Otzi, until then we don’t know for sure just how modern these 200,000 year old humans were. Granted we have no real reason to believe this, I merely mention it to point out that we aren’t even sure the premise the question is based on is correct.

A second factor is that human populations was miniscule throughout those tens of thousands of years, tiny bands of hunter-gatherers scattered widely. Small numbers of people means small numbers of geniuses to make discoveries, and even smaller chances that they will be able to get together in numbers to accomplish anything. More importantly, for much of our prehistory, we didn’t even have language. And certainly not writing and the complex modern language required to transmit and compare ideas. Einstein without language might still have had brilliant insights, but it would have been very difficult for him to communicate them effectively.

Lastly, it was suggested by some answers that people were too busy surviving to strive for higher knowledge. This is largely untrue from modern studies of hunter-gatherer cultures, they actually have more free time than their agricultural brethren. Every ancient copper axe head ever discovered was polished to a mirror like sheen. This took huge amounts of labour with the tools they had available, and served no practical purpose. Hardly something done by people who had no time  to spare.

This does lead to my last suggested reason why humans took so long to develop civilization. Even as hunter gatherers armed with stone tools, humans were a remarkably successful species. One that spread to every continent on Earth, and adapted to almost every conceivable ecosystem. No other animal has even come close  to establishing the range and breadth of human colonization of the planet in what can only be considered an eye blink in geological time. So there was no need or motivation to develop higher civilization, why improve on perfection? Our ancestors had plenty of time for community events, song, sex, and all the rest. And they were good at hunting and gathering, humans could and did utilize a vast array of food sources, again, like no animal has ever been able to do before. Cavemen may not have had all the modern amenities, but they had good lives and couldn’t imagine they needed more.

No, the question isn’t why it took so long for humans to develop civilization. The real question is … why did it happen at all? And like the question “How many men does it take to put a new roll of TP on the dispenser?” the answer is … no one knows.

Have a great weekend everyone!

(Welcome new and old readers. I hope you enjoyed this post. As of January 2018 I have resumed regular blogging on my new Patreon version of Doug’s Darkworld. Science, history, current events, and posts about a certain president who can hardly go a day without inspiring a blog post.)

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is central to illustrating the post, is not being used for profit, and in no way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image. The opposite in fact, since I encourage people to visit the fine National Geographic article about Gobleki Tepe. These are the oldest monumental structures built by humans, built by stone age people that didn’t have agriculture. We have no clue why they were built, but they were the beginning of the road that led to the pyramids and Rome and eventually to us.)

Written by unitedcats

July 20, 2012 at 6:30 am