How did Homo erectus communicate
Could Neanderthals speak?
Max Planck scientists suspect that modern human language originated 500,000 years ago
Language is a fleeting medium; it does not leave any directly measurable traces. In their search for the origins of human language, scientists therefore collect archaeological, anatomical and genetic evidence that tells them when the ability to speak arose. According to researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, most scientific studies indicate that human language is significantly older than previously assumed. The scientists conclude from this that even the last common ancestor could speak of Neanderthals and modern humans. It is possible that today's languages even contain elements of the languages of earlier human forms.
Neanderthals are the closest relatives of modern humans. The last common ancestor lived around 500,000 years ago. For several centuries, the Neanderthals were ideally adapted to the harsh living conditions in western Eurasia. Nevertheless, they were long considered primitive, ape-like beings. For a long time, researchers denied them intelligence, culture and language. However, archaeological, paleoanthropological and genetic data have caused many scientists to rethink their approach. It is now known that modern humans, Neanderthals and presumably various other as yet unknown human forms were in close contact with one another and even mixed genetically. This suggests that they possessed similar intellectual and cultural skills.
Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics conclude from these data that human language in its present form goes back at least to the last common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals. According to this, language originated between 1.8 million and one million years ago, i.e. between the emergence of the genus homo and the appearance of Homo heidelbergensis, the putative ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals. It has evolved over a long period of time. This interpretation of the two Max Planck scientists shifts the origin backwards by a factor of ten: Until now, most researchers have assumed that language originated 100,000 to 50,000 years ago as a result of a single, sudden change in the genome.
In the course of its history outside of Africa, modern man mixed up with both the Neanderthals and the Denisova man, another form of man that has so far only been known from genetic analyzes. The genes of people living today contain genes that originally come from Neanderthals and Denisovans. In addition, similarities in the manufacture of tools or weapons point to a cultural exchange. According to Dediu and Levinson, languages may have mixed up during these encounters. Modern humans therefore not only carry Neanderthal and Denisova genes, but would also have retained remnants of the language of their closest relatives. Today's linguistic diversity would then go back in part to encounters with other human forms. A clear indication of such a mixture of languages would be if linguists found structural differences between African and non-African languages. Because only the non-African languages could contain elements of Neanderthal and Denisova idioms.
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