|Illustration of hypothesized dates and |
communication systems, shown alongside
tool technologies and hominin species
In my previous post "Are we being a bit unfair to Neanderthals?", I discussed the tendency for people to be quite negative when thinking about Neanderthals, to compare their culture to more modern examples of our own, and scorn them as "the other" - languageless, dumb, and trying-to-be-human-but-not-quite-getting-it. It's an unbalanced view, when humans and Neanderthals had broadly similar behavioural and cultural signature in the record, especially when you look at contemporary examples in the record.
Some might say that the classic image of the Neanderthal has had a makeover - we now know that sometimes, some of them buried their dead. Sometimes, some of them pierced teeth or shells, and used red ochre and black manganese as colourants. Often, they made beautiful stone tools with great skill and knowledge of flint working. Sometimes they interbred with modern humans.
But still, the nul hypothesis for some has remained that Neanderthals are crap versions of humans. Equally, if you are going to attribute intelligence to a species, don't you also need evidence to attribute them with a lack of intelligence?
Now, with evidence of interbreeding between the species, and the Neanderthal genome sequenced, it's harder to think of Neanderthals so simply as 'the other'. Dediu and Levinson's article doesn't contain the Neanderthal racism I often find myself complaining about.
Most interesting and unique about their article is the implications for studying language evolution and linguistics, suggesting for example,
the present-day linguistic diversity might better reflect the properties of the design space for language and not just the vagaries of history, and could also contain traces of the languages spoken by other human forms such as the Neandertals.It's a great article synthesizing lots of relevant information on Neanderthals as well as language origins research, and I recommend it as a good read for anyone with an interest!