If defining the difference between chimpanzees and humans poses challenges, the differences between us and species along the human evolutionary line is even more challenging. In particular, what was the difference between Neanderthals and us?
This question was revived recently in a paper that a Portuguese archaeologist at the University of Bristol, João Zilhão, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It challenged the belief that Neanderthals did not use symbols.
Archaeologists have argued that the evidence for any symbolic thought among Neanderthals was, at best, feeble and, therefore, they did not speak. Of course, written evidence is entirely absent, but Homo sapiens was producing decorative crafts and rock drawings while Neanderthals were still alive. If our ancestors were so creative while Neanderthals were not, the argument goes, it follows that Neanderthals were not able to use symbols and could not speak. On the other hand, fossil evidence has long made clear that Neanderthal used stone tools, fire, and offered assistance to infirm individuals. They were quite plainly far more culturally advanced than chimpanzees. It was true that some decorative beads suggestive of symbolic thought have been found in Neanderthal sites but, pointing to stratification, archaeologists concluded that the site had a long tangled history and the decorative beads came from Homo sapiens who used the site many thousands of years later.
Ian Tattersall, a curator at New York's American Museum of Natural History, wrote in a special edition of Scientific American published this past summer:
it seems fair to regard the Neandertals as exponents of the most complex—and in many ways admirable—lifestyle that it has ever proved possible to achieve with intuitive processes alone. ... What they almost certainly did not possess, however, is language as we are familiar with it.
Zilhão's team restudied a classic Neanderthal site at Châtelperron in central France and concluded it had had been contaminated by 19th century fossil hunters. Their contamination accounted for the striations suggestive of many settlements. When the effects of contamination are taken into account, decorated bone points and personal ornamentation found at the site pre-date the arrival of Homo sapiens in the region. It was Neanderthal who made and used the symbols.
The chief argument for the notion that speech is a relative late bloomer on humanity's evolutionary line has been the feeble evidence for “symbolic” thought among Neanderthals.
Dr. Zilhão argues:
The differences between Neandertals and modern humans may be much less than had been previously thought, suggesting that human cognition and symbolic thinking may date back to before the two sub-species split around 400,000 years ago.
This blog leans toward the idea of a very long evolution for speech, so statements like these catch its attention. None the less, nothing about Neanderthal history is easily settled and the reinterpretation of one of the world’s most famous Neanderthal sites is not likely to be accepted as the final word on the Neanderthal intellect.
There are other issues that raise questions about Neanderthal speech. Philip Lieberman has argued for decades that the Neanderthal supralaryngeal vocal tract could not support Homo-sapiens-style speech, although others deny this objection (see this abstract and this reference). Lieberman says they could have produced a variety of sounds, but not with the accuracy available to us with our advanced control of tongue and voice.
With both the interpretation of Neanderthal speech organs and Neanderthal symbolic thinking in dispute, we can imagine four possible outcomes when the dust finally settles (should that happy day every alive). These are illustrated in the table at the bottom.
- Outcome 1: Neanderthal may have had some emotional expressions and even joint attention, but did not have meaningful speech. They were indeed a kind of missing link, emotionally like us, intellectually like chimpanzees.
- Outcome 2: Empty, or meaningless, speech is hard to imagine and, although included here for the sake of completeness, this outcome seems unlikely. We know that the image of computer/brains is strong, but this is a bit too literal to be credible. It would mean that Neanderthals were well spoken, but had nothing to say.
- Outcome 3: This would mean that Neanderthal speech was like that of 3 and 4 year olds who have yet to master pronunciation. The people who know them best can understand them, but strangers have a difficult time catching their meaning. This outcome would go a long way to suggesting why the Neanderthal went extinct. It’s limited social interactions could not compete with the broader reach of Homo sapiens.
- Outcome 4: As far as speech and thought goes, the Neanderthal were like us. There is nothing in this area to help understand why our species prospered while theirs did not.