This is what a Neanderthal conversation would have sounded like

This is what a Neanderthal conversation would have sounded like

Steven Mithen writes:

We can only truly understand other people by knowing something about their language. Without that, we remain largely excluded from their lives – unable to fully grasp their concepts, emotions or how they perceive the world.

This applies to people of the past as well as those of the present. The languages of some prehistoric humans (such as Bronze Age farmers) can be reconstructed, to a limited extent, by comparing languages that are spoken today. But what about our more distant ancestors and relatives, those from our evolutionary past? They used language, too. Are their languages completely lost to us, restricting our understanding of humanity to our own surviving species?

Consider the Neanderthals. When first discovered in the late 19th century, they were seen as nasty and brutish; today we view them differently. We now know that the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) shared an ancestor with us, Homo sapiens, around 600,000 years ago and lived in Europe and Asia until 40,000 years ago. Their brains were roughly the same size as ours. They made tools from stone and wood, sometimes joining these together with resin and fibres to make spears for hunting big game. When H sapiens dispersed from Africa 70,000 years ago, they interbred with Neanderthals, leaving many of us today with their genes in our DNA. Despite how much we know about them, the Neanderthals remain an enigma – so similar to us, and yet so different. The most striking contrast is the relative absence of technological progression throughout Neanderthal existence.

This is the puzzle posed by Neanderthals: why have we made so much more technological progress than they did, despite their skill at flaking stone and making tools? Relatedly, why did our art develop from geometric designs at 100,000 years ago to figurative cave paintings by 38,000 years, while Neanderthal ‘art’ remained restricted to a few highly contested scratches and blobs of pigment for more than 300,000 years?

As I argue in my book The Language Puzzle (2024), the answer lies in language, and more specifically how the words we use influence not only what we communicate but how we think. Despite lacking the means to discover the specific words once spoken by Neanderthals, we can use recent advances in archaeology, linguistics, genomics and brain-related disciplines to make inferences about the types of words they used. By comparing them with our own, we can find out what is unique about our language, and hence our minds, today. [Continue reading…]

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