Neanderthals Talked -- Like Us

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The last Neanderthals had passed by southern Iberia quite earlier than previously thought.
Neanderthal Museum (Mettmann, Germany)

Neanderthals, like modern humans, likely communicated among themselves and with others using tonal languages.

New research, published in the journal Frontiers in Language Sciences, presents strong evidence -- genetic, fossil, archaeological and more -- that modern speech and language existed among Neanderthals, Denisovans (a Paleolithic type of human), and early members of our own species.

“Modern humans and Neanderthals and Denisovans are very similar genetically, and there are indications of interbreeding as well, strengthening this similarity,” lead author Dan Dediu told Discovery News, explaining that a gene involved in language and speech, FOXP2, is present in all three groups.

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Neanderthal genes also suggest that the stocky, yet brainy, individuals possessed tonal languages, since there is an association between tone and two of their genes involved in brain growth and development.

Dediu is a senior investigator in the Language and Genetics Department and is group leader of Genetic Biases in Speech and Language at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.

In addition to outlining the DNA evidence, Dediu and colleague Stephen Levinson also explain that Neanderthals possessed a human-like hyoid bone, which is involved in speech production. Neanderthal ear bones further appear to have evolved for hearing speech in addition to other sounds, just as ours have.

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Symbolism ties to language, since sounds and words represent specific concepts, and it appears that Neanderthals were big on both symbolism and culture.

“Recent discoveries and reinterpretation of the Neanderthal archaeological record support its capacity for symbolic culture (including their) complex toolkit, complex social life and its capacity to persist in the harsh and fluctuating western Eurasian climate of the time,” Dediu said.