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Did Neandertals have language?
Date:7/9/2013

Fast-accumulating data seem to indicate that our close cousins, the Neandertals, were much more similar to us than imagined even a decade ago. But did they have anything like modern speech and language? And if so, what are the implications for understanding present-day linguistic diversity? The MPI for Psycholinguistics researchers Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson argue in their paper in Frontiers in Language Sciences that modern language and speech can be traced back to the last common ancestor we shared with the Neandertals roughly half a million years ago.

The Neandertals have fascinated both the academic world and the general public ever since their discovery almost 200 years ago. Initially thought to be subhuman brutes incapable of anything but the most primitive of grunts, they were a successful form of humanity inhabiting vast swathes of western Eurasia for several hundreds of thousands of years, during harsh ages and milder interglacial periods. We knew that they were our closest cousins, sharing a common ancestor with us around half a million years ago (probably Homo heidelbergensis), but it was unclear what their cognitive capacities were like, or why modern humans succeeded in replacing them after thousands of years of cohabitation. Recently, due to new palaeoanthropological and archaeological discoveries and the reassessment of older data, but especially to the availability of ancient DNA, we have started to realise that their fate was much more intertwined with ours and that, far from being slow brutes, their cognitive capacities and culture were comparable to ours.

Dediu and Levinson review all these strands of literature and argue that essentially modern language and speech are an ancient feature of our lineage dating back at least to the most recent ancestor we shared with the Neandertals and the Denisovans (another form of humanity known mostly from their genome). Their interpretation of the intrinsically ambig
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Contact: Dan Dediu
Dan.Dediu@mpi.nl
31-243-521-188
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
Source:Eurekalert

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