Neanderthals had language comparable to that of Homo sapiens, Bordeaux-based archaeologist Francisco D’Errico told participants in the Evolang conference in Barcelona this morning (Saturday, March 15, 2008). This claim totally discards the older Big Bang theory that said language arose only very recently (40 to 75 thousand years ago), and also challenges the Out-of-Africa theory that proposes Homo sapiens emerged in Africa about 200 thousand years ago and spread over the rest of the world, carrying language and culture with them, beginning about 60 thousand years ago. A new history will have to be written.
D’Errico based his claim on what he called material “proxies” for symbolic communication, in essence pigments used for body painting and carved materials used for body ornamentation (beads and other decorative wear). His argument that these proxies can be taken as persuasive evidence of language on the basis that
they are symbolic, i.e., used to represent something rather than merely be something. A tool like a hand axe is useful and shaped, but is what it is. A body marking redefines something about the body, changing the brute fact of the body to something else, if you share the understanding of the person who has marked her or his body.
their conventions and manufacture are transmitted, i.e., to understand the symbolism and make the materials, the society has to be able to instruct newcomers (children) into the meanings and methods of the artifacts.
He makes a further “uniformitarian” argument that similar symbolic abilities reflect similar communicative abilities. Thus, if we can find proxies that are symbolic and dependent upon transmission, we have evidence of the a language-using species.
D’Errico provided extensive evidence of very old use of pigments, going back perhaps almost 300 thousand years in Africa. Body ornaments came later, but still over 100 thousand years ago. Evidence from Israel, for example, may date as far back as 125 thousand years ago. Body ornaments like beads require more work than pigmentation, and an examination of them indicates the existence of tools for putting holes in the beads, strings for wearing the beads (insides of the bead holes show evidence of having been well eroded, suggesting long use), and the need for trade to get pigments used in coloring the beads (the bead material and the pigment material came from different locations). This abundant evidence has killed the idea that language began with some kind of explosive symbolic activity about 40,000 years ago, although the idea continues to be taken for granted in much of the popular press.
The evidence for Neanderthal language is based on their use of pigments and body ornaments. Some have argued that this usage may have reflected contact with Homo sapiens. D’Errico said that even if that were the case, the ability of Neanderthal to recognize and make use of an idea would be evidence of their symbolic capacity, but then he rendered the objection mute by reporting Neanderthal body ornaments dating to about 65 thousand years ago, well before any contact with Homo sapiens.
Neanderthal body pigment was black, unlike the most popular red ochre in the sapiens line. Mitochondrial evidence suggests Neanderthals were red headed with pale skin, and therefore had different ornamental needs than black-skinned red ochre users in Africa.
The existence of modern language capacities in Neanderthals implies that all the biological capacities required to support language production pre-date the split between the Neanderthal and sapiens lineages. D’Errico (and a number of other presenters at this conference) mentioned recent findings that the Neanderthal FoxP2 gene associated with language matched that of H sapiens. His claim was also supported by research indicating the human lineage at lost its air sacs at least 800 thousand years ago (see: Fossil Evidence of Speech?)
If the full biological package was that old, there is no cultural reason to stand with the Out-of-Africa theory. A hundred thousand years ago, pigments and orientation were scattered at sites outside of Africa, indicating the existence of a variety of symbolic traditions and biologically competent speakers.
The primary objection raised in discussing this matter with linguists at the conference was the doubt that the presence of one kind of symbolic activity necessarily implies the existence of another kind, language. The argument based on uniformitarianism was questioned as being outside of the spirit of evolution, as evolution is by its nature contrary to uniformitarianism over time.
As the conference ended I spoke to social anthropologist Chris Knight to ask his response to the D'Errico presentation. In particular I wondered whether he believed that a society with symbolism advanced enough to produce pigmentation and body ornamentation had to have language, or, as some linguists had said to me, one could still be skeptical. He was of the opinion that it is absolutely established now that Neanderthals spoke.