Could Neanderthals Talk?

Modern humans have historically taken great pride in being the only animals capable of sophisticated language; it has been one of the pieces of evidence for the perceived inevitable dominance of Homo sapiensin the food chain.  The perception is that the behavioral characteristics that made H. sapiens supposedly more advanced—things such as culture that are considered what make one “human”—are necessarily linked with a complex system of language.  By arguing that AMH has been the only hominin capable of complex language, it can be inferred that it is also the only hominin capable of those same advanced behavioral characteristics.  But what if H. sapiens was not the only species to have mastered a kind of advanced communication? Neanderthal’s linguistic capability has been the subject of much debate, usually focusing on the physical characteristics that make it more or less likely that these ancient hominins could communicate.  But there are more subtle pieces of evidence concerning Neanderthal behavior and communities that should be considered when making inferences about their linguistic capabilities, as well.  This paper will address that evidence—focusing on interbreeding, tool usage,hunting, care giving, and burials—and examine what it reveals about possible Neanderthal mastery of sophisticated language.

           In order to analyze the question of Neanderthal’s linguistic capabilities, the physical attributes that science now recognizes as necessary for speech must first be addressed.  Current knowledge of Neanderthal speech organs and DNA sequencing has shown that they were at the very least physically capable of language (Weber 1986:22,23). The evaluation of these specific physical characteristics would require an entire paper in and of itself, and what is mentioned here is only a brief summary; for more detail, Francesco d’Ericco and Sverker Johannson’s papers should be referenced.  First, the lower position of the larynx observed in Neanderthals is comparable to Homosapiens, which argues for a vocal capability by allowing extensive tongue control and the ability to allow laryngeal air into the buccal cavity to control sound (d’Errico et al. 2003:29, 30). Next of relevance is the existence of the hyoid bone, which though rarely maintained through fossilization, has been shown in Neanderthals to be consistent with AMH (Johansson 2015:318). The importance of the hyoid bone is its role in the structure of the vocal tract, and its placement being consistent with that of Homosapienssuggests that Neanderthals utilized it in the same ways.  Finally, there are the wide canals of the Neanderthal thorax consistent with AMH but not with Homo ergaster.  Wide thorax canals enhance breath control in modern humans, and the presence of the same wide canals in Neanderthals but the absence in earlier hominins suggests the same utility (Johansson 2015: 318).  In terms of genetics, the recently discovered FOXp2 in the Neanderthal genome has further strengthened the argument in favor of their speech capability (Johansson 2015: 320). FOXp2 was thought to exist only in Homosapiensand is believed to be associated with language capacity, though its exact influence is unknown. Though only a small portion of the Neanderthal physicality relevant to language, this evidence allows us to assume for argument’s sake that the Neanderthals were physically capable of language.  Given that assumption, the question now becomes: to what extent?

Defining “Sophisticated Language”

           It is important to define first what one considers sophisticated language. According to Sverker Johannson (2013), it is “the presence of something like lexical semantics, flexibly and learnedly mapping forms to meanings” (40). What he is suggesting is that there is a difference between communication and language; birds may chirp differently when they are afraid or when they are mating, but this is not language. Monkeys may have a specific alarm call, but this, again, is not language.  Language refers to the existence of specific units of communication, such as words, that retain symbolism and can recombined in an unlimited number of ways according to what the speaker wishes to communicate.  This ability requires a level of cognitive functioning typically associated only with Homosapiens; current evidence for the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals, however, calls this assumption of the uniqueness of our command of language into question.   In particular, research that has shed light on the dynamics of Neanderthal society indicates a higher level of communication than was once assumed.  Given the complexity of these behaviors, it seems impossible to imagine aspects of Neanderthal society without a command of advanced linguistics. To be able to conceptualize abstract concepts such as learning, death, or illness, and then act as a societal unit upon those concepts demands some method of communication necessarily developed enough to reflect language.  To a certain extent, these abstract concepts cannot exist without a method of communication advanced enough to be able to represent them, so studying evidence for the behaviors that demand this sort of cognitive ability is suggestive of Neanderthal capability and utility of advanced communication. While many of these examples of behavioral evidence on their own could be attempted to be explained away by communication without language—simple imitation, for example—the complexity of Neanderthal society that becomes evident when all the evidence is examined together seems to necessitate an advanced verbal communication, the only method of communication complex and distinct enough to be able to address all of these aspects of advanced behavior.  This paper will argue that the evidence concerning Neanderthal culture and behavior strongly suggests a sophisticated use of language.

Evidence for Interbreeding

           Current DNA research has shown that Europeans and Asians share anywhere from 1-4% of their nuclear DNA with Neanderthals (Gibbons 2010:680). This data proves that at least some amount of successful interbreeding occurred during the period of overlap of Homo sapiensand Neanderthals.  The fossil child found in Lagar Velho, Portugal is believed to be a hybrid of AMH and Neanderthals, further strengthening the argument for interbreeding (Johansson 2013:16). What is so intriguing about this evidence is that it makes necessary a standard of communication between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.  First, there are questions concerning the likelihood of mating at all without some ability to communicate.  If Neanderthals and Homo sapiensinterbred in an organized merging of tribes, then it is hard to imagine a tight knit society structured upon long-term pair bonds and vocal communication (as Homo sapiens were) accepting new members that were unable to at least partially communicate (Johannson 2013:17). Reproductive success could have easily been dependent upon an individual’s ability to communicate at least sufficiently.  

           The obvious counter to this is the suggestion that interbreeding did not occur in an organized and peaceful way and was instead was the result of random, even forced encounters.  This hypothesis, however, is equally illuminating.  A Neanderthal-AMH hybrid child would have still been incorporated into the tribal society of its mother; if hybrid children were simply abandoned, no DNA evidence would be present in humans today.  But if the hybrid children were incorporated successfully as members of these tight-knit AMH groups, then their Neanderthal DNA must not have limited them overly much in terms of their ability to communicate (Johansson 2013:17).   This suggests that being half-Neanderthal did not communicatively handicap these hybrids extensively enough to prevent them from reproducing and further passing on their genes, so Neanderthals must have had some natural capacity to learn and utilize language. With the evidence for interbreeding, it can be inferred that the Neanderthals had at least a level of communication sophisticated enough to interact with a different species with language, and that hybrid children were not intellectually limited in their ability to communicate sufficiently.

Evidence for Hunting and Tool Use            

           The structure of Neanderthal society made effective communication in variable situations critical.  High-risk hunting techniques that require complex planning, as well as long-term techniques that require “mental time travel” (Wadley 2015:179) suggest that sophisticated language was a necessary part of survival.  Neanderthals hunted big game animals as group, using heavy spears to stab large animals at close range The kind of prey they targeted, such as cave bears, were extremely dangerous, and successfully bringing down such a strong animal without losing members of the group would require planning and forethought, not to mention at the very least a basic level of communication during the actual hunt for the sake of the individuals attacking.  The Neanderthal hunting techniques seem to necessitate a level of language sophistication based upon its high-risk tendencies. Had Neanderthals been unable to successfully communicate, this mode of hunting would have been far too risky and inefficient to maintain long-term.  On a less risky scale, however, the evidence found for Neanderthal snare usage “is one of several indicators that can be used for the recognition of enhanced working memory and complex cognition” (Wadley 2015:179).  The construction of snares shows a capability of planning, strategic thinking, and awareness of the future.  Neanderthals that could conceptualize using snares, create them, and then place them with the intention of future benefit would not be cognitively far from communicating those same intentions and practices to others.  Their combined structure of hunting-gathering necessitated a high level of communication between the various members of the community as roles needed to be divided, hunts planned, or snares maintained.  Examining other small, socially intimate communities living in harsh conditions today, such as the Inuit or Aboriginals, further supports this interpretation.  Both the Inuit and Aboriginals maintain societies where every individual, similar to Neanderthals, is dependent upon the community for survival in high-stress conditions; and both societies have complex languages for efficient communication (Alper 2003:83). Based on their structure for hunting-gathering, it seems impossible to imagine a successful Neanderthal community without a sophisticated language system.

           Critical to Neanderthal system of hunting would have been their ability to use tools, and the precise and complex methods of tool making exhibited by Neanderthals further imply an effective communication system that allowed instruction. Neanderthal tool making is a complex and multifaceted history, but for the sake of this paper the concentration will be on only a few examples that act as a microcosm for the bigger picture: the complexity and consistency of the Mousterian technique, and the complexity of birch pitch creation.  The Mousterian technique is a kind of Levallois tool structure associated with Neanderthals in which pieces were struck off from a rock core at precise and intentional angles to make an implement (Alper 2003:85).  While the sophistication of the precision of these tools is admirable in itself, what is most intriguing is the consistency of tool making over time and between communities.  In a study done between various caves on the coast of Northern Iberia, the examples of Mousterian tools found showed such little deviation between them that it suggests not only were the communities passing down the technique to younger members of their tribes, but there was also communication ongoing between various cave groups (Lazuen 2012: 2306-2307).  Communication being utilized for instruction and tool use is further supported by the Neanderthal mastery of birch pitch.  In 1963, two pitch rings were found in a cave of the Harz Mountains that were dated to be older than 80,000 years (Koller and Baumer 2001:393), as well as several Mesolithic and Upper Palaeolithic spear heads from sites in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland with pitch residues along what would have been the hafted edge (Pawlik and Thissen 2011:1701). The method through which Neanderthals would have created this pitch—which was used to attach spearheads to shafts—was incredibly complex, and has yet to be successfully recreated without the use of modern facilities today (Koller and Baumer 2001:393).  The level of difficulty in creating pitch necessitates a passing down of knowledge between members, since recreating it without instruction is something modern science has yet to rediscover.  The complexity and yet apparently widespread use of birch pitch strongly suggests a level of communication competent enough to pass along sophisticated knowledge of technique and cognitive level high enough to understand the long-term benefits of creating pitch. The precision and consistency of Mousterian tools among different sites in Europe further supports the argument for language, overall suggesting that the Neanderthal mastery of complex tool use suggests a level of cognitive functioning and communication consistent with that of advanced language.

           The suggestion that communication was an essential part of passing on Neanderthal tool use is further supported by what appear to be children’s tools, which were either toys or attempts to replicate real tools while learning. Three levels of flint knapping were found at the Chatelperronian levels of Arcy-sur-Cure, showing expert tools alongside advanced learners and what appear to beginners’ tools, as well (Spikins 126).  Similar artifacts appearing to be the attempt of someone learning to make tools were found in Rhenen, which suggests “a structured pattern to learning, whereby children were not only taught various techniques but also had the opportunity to copy adult behavior” (Spikins et al. 2014:126).  The existence of these tools is analogous to children today playing with toy cars and kitchen sets; these simplified versions provide exposure to the adult world without exposing children to potential dangers, and provide an insight on a social structure of shared behavior and values that were passed on generation to generation.  It seems improbable that a community could have been so dependent upon such complex tool usage that required dedicated, long term teaching to master, and therefore developed a system whose children went through a period of development and learning during which they were not helping to support to the community but were instead gaining the skills necessary to support it in the future, without some kind of communication.  The evolving aspect of behavior and its apparent growth through members of the community (adults teaching children) strongly supports the theory of language usage sophisticated enough to pass down skills and foster child development.  

Evidence for Social Care and Burials        

           Evidence for Neanderthal inclination to care for weak and/or injured individuals strongly suggests methods of social communication advanced enough to adapt to unexpected situations and think beyond immediate survival. Though once considered to be heartlessly practical to the point of leaving their old and infirm behind to die, closer evaluation of the state of Neanderthals remains shows that there was clearly a high level of caretaking in multiple Neanderthal communities.  In La Chapelle-aux-Saints, fossil remains were found of a 50,000-year-old individual with severe neck arthritis, deformed hip, crushed toe, broken rib and damaged patella who still lived into their 40s (Tilley 2015:234). This individual would not have been able to hunt; at best, perhaps they still could have performed work around the camp, but it is very likely that even that would have been difficult (Tilley 2015:235). Yet the fact that the individual lived so long and was intentionally buried (Tilley 2015:237) proves his continued inclusion in the community.  The Neanderthals maintained some value in the individual’s life despite his being unable to contribute in an effective way. Similarly, the Shanida cave revealed another 40-year-old individual but this time with an atrophied leg and arm, a healed foot fracture, and an injury that left him blind in one eye (Tilley 2015:237). The fact that his injuries showed signs of healing is proof that he was being provided with care for at least a period of time after being wounded, as his injuries would have been debilitating.  Both of these examples suggest a level of compassion previously unassociated with Neanderthals, but in terms of its significance to language, it provides interesting insight as well.  An individual receiving care from a community would, one has to imagine, have had some way of effectively communicating their injuries and the care they required.  The individuals in the community as well would then need to work together to figure out a system of division of labor to care for the individual in the most cost-effective way for the tribe, which would have been a central issue given the stressful environments in which the Neanderthals lived.  The level of care provided in Neanderthal communities for their struggling members seems impossible to comprehend without the capability of sophisticated communication.

           The evidence of Neanderthal burials is likewise suggestive of a level of compassion and societal cohesion consistent with communication. Evidence from multiple burial sites has led scientists to believe that Neanderthal burial, though perhaps not extremely common, did happen on a regular basis across different communities. The first Neanderthal burial discovery occurred at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, where careful analysis of sediment deposits has strongly supported the depression in which the body was found as having been made intentionally (Rendu et al. 2014:83). The child found in La Ferrassie—buried in what appears to be an intentional pit and covered with a limestone slab—suggests burial as well, along with the Dederiyeh child found in Syria, also located in a pit (Chase and Dibble 1987:273). These burials are deemed legitimate based on their environmental structure in which the body is left (if the sediments have been clearly disrupted or manipulated in an unnatural way), and various grave goods, along with evidence for immediate internment of the bodies (Rendu 2014:83). Neanderthal burial is significant for many reasons: ceremonies for those who have passed suggest recognition of death, the acknowledgement of permanent separation from those who are still living.  In order to communicate the death of a person to other members of a tribe and the intent to bury them, one has to have a method of communicating abstract terms such as death, which is not easily or effectively communicated in a drawing or hand signals.  Given the abstract nature of the intentions behind this behavior, language seems the necessary form of communication.  Intentional burial also reveals some kind of emotional tie between individuals of a community: there was still investment in a person even after their death.  There is also a certain communication that seems necessary between individuals working together to inter a body.  All of these things together suggest not only a high level of cognitive ability but also a community cohesion and cooperative behavior that seems improbable without an organized system of language.

            Neanderthals have suffered under a stigma of stupidity since their discovery.  The popular image of empty-headed cave men communicating through grunts has permeated history, but modern research has shown that Neanderthal communication may have been much more advanced than history originally imagined.  While genetic testing and morphology have proven Neanderthals capable of language, it is the evidence of their behavior that is most suggestive of a complex communication system.  Based on the complexity of Neanderthal communities, it seems nearly impossible to imagine that they did not have some kind of sophisticated language through which they maintained societal values and structures.  This would bring them one step closer to Homosapiens, further undermining the human self-conception as totally unique and inevitably placed at the top of the evolutionary pyramid. If Neanderthals did speak—as evidence suggests they did—then it begs the questions of how different they truly were from us, whether the triumph of dominant Homo sapienswas ever guaranteed, and whether history could have easily ended another way altogether.

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Sonja K. Eliason

February 3, 2018