Thursday, October 12, 2017

Did We Talk Neanderthals to Death?

This blog post written by 
Emily Lau, Hunter College
Before reading this post, it is imperative to understand that there are many hypotheses regarding the origins, reasoning, and pathways that language has taken to emerge. The reason behind this ambiguity is because spoken word is ephemeral – once spoken, it vanishes in the air. Consequently, there is little hard evidence that provides logical support for one hypothesis.

I was interested in writing about the origin of language because of this quote from The 10,000 Year Explosion, by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending: 

“Probably the most popular and attractive hypothesis is that modern humans had developed advanced language capabilities and therefore were able to talk the Neanderthals to death." 

The working idea is that, since Homo sapiens could communicate effectively, they displaced Neanderthals and outcompeted them for resources. I believe this argument is solid; speech production and language in H. sapiens would give them an evolutionary advantage, since they could share information about plants and food items, relay where abundant foods or fruit bearing trees are, or convey warnings. (I highly recommend this biological anthropology book, especially if you are interested in the controversy of whether humans are still evolving).

The advancement in genomics methodologies (extracting, sequencing, and analyzing DNA and mapping genes) has revealed that Neanderthals and modernhumans share 99.5% of their genome. Despite this similarity, Neanderthals are phenotypically different from modern humans, which essentially means that their features are not the same as modern-day humans. Although we are genetically similar to Neanderthals, this empirical evidence does not show that Neanderthals were capable of producing modern human speech. 

In fact, a hyoid bone from a Neanderthal was found in Kebara, Israel and scientists initially used this to argue that Neanderthals must have had similar speech capabilities as humans. However, this was disproven because there is no clear correlation of the morphology of the hyoid to speech capability. 

Additionally, we cannot compare our language syntax to any other species. It has been argued that organisms which contain language syntax most like our own are songbirds and parrots. In addition to the ability to imitate, it has been shown that humans and these birds have the same organization for auditory-vocal behavior. Despite these biological and linguistic studies, it is important to recognize that many hypotheses regarding the language capabilities of organisms are highly controversial.  

For decades, linguists, psychologists, biologists, and anthropologists have been working towards resolving these problems. Linguists like Chomsky and his colleagues argue that language developed via the Strong Minimalist Thesis, which essentially argues that all the “machinery” for language production and auditory listening was originally present in the predecessors of modern humans. This hypothesis bridges or merges these two machineries so that modern humans could produce and understand language.

Of course, this is all under the assumption that language has originated recently (around 100,000 years ago). In 2014, Chomsky and his colleagues authored a paper titled “How Could Language Have Evolved?” Here, they speak about how H. sapiens originated in an archaic society – there was no technology, cities, and arguably, culture. They use this fact (that the rise of cities, technologies, and culture occurred rapidly) to show that language must have been a recent acquisition. (It is interesting to note that there is an evolutionary trade off – the ability to produce language comes with a cost. The optimal positioning of the larynx for speech production caused the inability to breathe and swallow at the same time, which meant that H. sapiens could easily choke to death). In addition to the argument that language has originated recently, Chomsky and his colleagues argue that language has not evolved – this raises many critiques of his work.

In my opinion, I do not agree fully with Chomsky.
I believe that language is constantly evolving, as observed with the usage of emojis ( see Yumna Ahmed Qazi post )  and the emergence of social media platforms
However, I do like the Strong Minimalist Hypothesis, since it would explain why many organisms have similar auditory and speech capabilities but not the ability to produce language syntax like that of humans. 

So, do you agree/disagree with Chomsky’s hypothesis that language is non-evolving and unique to humans (and not their predecessors)?

What do you think about the evolutionary tradeoffs in regards to speech production? Can you think of other tradeoffs that have come along with being able to speak?

Did we really talk the Neanderthals to death?