Neanderthal language

(See also Neanderthal extinction.)

Somebody remarked that the evolutionary origins of language are hard to figure out, in part because “fossils don’t tell us much.”

Now they do, we just don’t know what!

A draft Neanderthal genome was published in May 2010: Hypotheses on Neanderthal language range from “they probably had some kind of simple system” to “they’re really a subspecies of Homo sapiens and their abilities must have been virtually the same” (opinions lately have been moving toward the second view) and now in principle we can find out. The most recent common ancestor is hundreds of thousands of years back, and with the chimpanzee genome as a backstop we can also estimate the common ancestor’s sequence.

To understand the story we need to know the genetics of language, which is a lot of hard work to come, but it will happen. Advances in reading degraded ancient DNA will also happen, since today’s methods assume that it is only fragmented and slightly altered and is still at heart functional DNA. So maybe someday we’ll able to sequence older Homo species. It would be a stretch, but the Neanderthal was such a stretch already that my mind won’t go back the same.

Original version, July 2010.
Updated and added here November 2011.