Rulers of the Earth

| December 14, 2021

The Neanderthals emerged from Africa about 200,000 years ago and migrated into what is now Europe, although Denisovan and Neanderthal bones were discovered together at Vindija in Eastern Russia. Since then, many hominids also migrated – most to the East. It was only about 100,000 years ago that Homo Sapiens began to move out and take over the world. The Neanderthals were stronger than we are and had larger brains, yet became extinct about 40,000 years ago. Many anthropologists have wondered about this. What is it about Homo Sapiens that allows us to overcome all other creatures?

It has been widely accepted for a long time that it is language that has set humans apart from the animals. Yet when we try to define language we tend to run into difficulties – many animals communicate (dolphins have names for each other and teach their young how to hunt, recognise danger, etc; monkeys show each other new methods of extracting food from shells or trees; dogs recognise a few dozen words; whales communicate in song and elephants via the earth they walk on).

However, until recently the question of how language evolved was a taboo subject. In the 1990’s a linguistics lecturer in Melbourne was asked that and he responded by saying that linguists did not ask it because it was not really possible to answer. Noam Chomsky, the extraordinarily influential linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was, for decades, rather famously disinterested in language evolution, and his attitude had a chilling effect on the field.

The early days of serious research in language evolution unearthed a perplexing paradox: Language is plainly, obviously, uniquely human. It consists of wildly complicated interconnecting sets of rules for combining sounds and words and sentences to create meaning. If other animals had a system that was the same, we would likely recognize it. The problem is that after looking for a considerable amount of time and with a wide range of methodological approaches, we cannot seem to find anything unique in ourselves – either in the human genome or in the human brain – that explains language.

To be sure, we have found biological features that are both unique to humans and important for language. For example, humans are the only primates to have voluntary control of their larynx: it puts us at risk of choking, but it allows us to articulate speech. But the equipment that seems to be designed for language never fully explains its enormous complexity and utility.

It seems more and more that the paradox is not inherent in language but in how we look at it. For a long time we have been in love with the idea of a sudden, explosive transformation that changed mere apes into us. The idea of metamorphosis has gone hand in hand with a list of equally dramatic ideas. For example: that language is a wholly discrete trait that has little in common with other kinds of mental activity; that language is the evolutionary adaptation that changed everything; and that language is wired into humanity’s DNA.

We have looked for a critical biological event that brought complex language into existence around 50,000 years ago. Findings from genetics, cognitive science and brain sciences are now converging in a different place. It looks like language is not a brilliant adaptation. Nor is it encoded in the human genome or the inevitable output of our superior human brains. Instead language grows out of a platform of abilities, some of which are very ancient and shared with other animals and only some of which are more modern.

Animal researchers were the first to challenge the definition of language as a discretely human attribute. As comparative psychologist Heidi Lyn has pointed out, the only way we can truly determine what is unique to human language is to explore the capacities of other animals. Interestingly, almost every time researchers have proposed that humans can do something that other animals cannot because humans have language, studies have shown that some animals can do some of those things, at least some of the time. Take gestures, for example. Some are individual, but many are common to our language community and even to all humans.

It is clear that language evolved as part of a communication system in which gesture also plays a role. But landmark work has shown that chimpanzees gesture in meaningful ways, too. Michael Tomasello, now emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues have shown that all species of great apes will wait until they have another ape’s attention before they signal, and they repeat gestures that do not get the response they want. Chimpanzees slap the ground or clap their hands to get attention – and just as a belligerent human might raise a fist, they roll their arms over their head (normally a prelude to an attack) as a warning to rivals.

Even so, Tomasello’s laboratory found that apes were very poor at understanding a human pointing gesture that conveyed information, such as, for example, the location of a hidden object. Does pointing  – or rather the ability to fully understand it – represent a critical step in the evolution of language? The claim struck Lyn, who worked with bonobos that are now at the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative, as absurd. “My apes understood when I pointed to things all the time,” she says. But when she set up pointing experiments with chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, she was surprised to find that the apes there did not understand her pointing well at all.

Then she went back to the bonobos in her lab and tested them. All of them did. The difference between the pointing apes and the nonpointing apes had nothing to do with biology, Lyn concluded. The bonobos had been taught to communicate with humans using simple visual symbols; the chimpanzees had not. “It’s apes that haven’t been around humans in the same way that can’t follow pointing,” she explains. The fact that the bonobos were taught by humans has been used to dismiss their ability, according to Lyn, as if they were somehow tainted.

Language research with parrots and dolphins and other animals has been discounted for the same reason. But Lyn argues that animals trained by humans provide valuable insights. If creatures with different brains and different bodies can learn some humanlike communicative skills, it means that language should not be defined as wholly human and disconnected from the rest of the animal world. Moreover, whereas language may be affected by biology, it is not necessarily determined by it. With the bonobos, it was culture, not biology, that made the critical difference.

The list of abilities that were formerly thought to be a unique part of human language is actually quite long. It includes parts of language, such as words. Vervet monkeys use wordlike alarm calls to signal a specific kind of danger. Another crucial aspect is structure. Because we have syntax, we can produce an infinite number of novel sentences and meanings, and we can understand sentences that we have never heard before.

Yet zebra finches have complicated structure in their songs, dolphins can understand differences in word order and even some monkeys in the wild seem to use one type of call to modify another. The list extends to types of cognition, such as theory of mind, which is the ability to infer others’ mental states. Dolphins and chimpanzees are excellent at guessing what an interlocutor wants.

Even the supposedly unique ability to think about numbers falls by the wayside – bees can understand the concept of zero, bees and rhesus monkeys can count to four, and cormorants used for fishing in China reportedly count to seven. The list includes genes. The famous FOXP2 gene, once called a language gene, is indeed a gene that affects language – when it is mutated, it disrupts articulation – but it performs other roles as well. There is no easy way to tease out the different effects.

Genes are critical for understanding how language evolved, says Simon Fisher, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, but “we have to think about what genes do.” To put an incredibly complex process very briefly: genes code for proteins, which then affect cells, which may be brain cells that form neural circuits, and it is those circuits that are then responsible for behaviour. “It may be that there is a network of genes that are important for syntactic processing or speaking proficiently,” Fisher explains, “but there won’t be a single gene that can magically code for a suite of abilities.” The list of no-longer-completely-unique human traits includes brain mechanisms, too.

We are learning that neural circuits can develop multiple uses. One recent study showed that some neural circuits that underlie language learning may also be used for remembering lists or acquiring complicated skills, such as learning how to drive. Sure enough, the animal versions of the same circuits are used to solve similar problems, such as, in rats, navigating a maze.

Michael Arbib, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, notes that humans have created “a material and mental world of ever increasing complexity” – and yet whether a child is born into a world with the steam train or one with the iPhone, he or she can master some part of it without alterations in biology. “

As far as we know,” Arbib says, “the only type of brain on earth that can do that is the human brain.” He emphasizes, however, that the brain is just one part of a complex system, which includes the body: “If dolphins had hands, maybe they could have evolved that world.” Indeed, making sense of the human world requires not only the brain in the body but also a group of brains interacting as part of the human social world. Arbib refers to this as an EvoDevoSocio approach. Biological evolution influences the development and learning of individuals, and individual learning shapes the evolution of culture; learning, in turn, can be shaped by culture.

To understand language, the human brain has to be considered a part of those systems. The evolution of language was polycausal, Arbib says. No one switch was thrown: there were lots of switches. And it did not happen all at once but took a great deal of time.

However, only humans can communicate complex concepts. Not only that, but with the advent of writing such communication can be achieved over distance and time. This gives us a distinct advantage over all other creatures. Anthropologists have discovered many sites where the Neanderthals camped or stayed, often for many years at a time. However, to my knowledge, no artefact has been found which was not available within a few days walk away.

With the help of both language and writing, humans could travel many days or months away, communicate with people they found then trade and exchange ideas and bring back the new knowledge and expertise. This enabled them to out compete the superior Neanderthals with the manufacture of tools, knives, spear heads, bows and arrows, food production and portable accommodation.

It is generally accepted that agriculture sprang into existence about 8,000 years ago all around the world at about the same time, yet the Neanderthals remained as hunter-gatherers. They carved adornments, buried their dead, knew and used fire and were able to overcome large, fierce animals yet retreated when faced with us. The Neanderthals produced artwork on cave walls in Spain about 68,000 years ago while Homo Sapiens began about 40,000 years ago. Thus art and language are differing facets of evolution

The simple tribal system is ideal in the short term in that it allows its members to work together and achieve immediate goals. However, larger units require different techniques – taxes to fund public enterprises and some form of monetary system to enable the production of a governing body and later a philosophical code or religion which could be used to keep the population under control.

The Neanderthals were biologically close enough to Homo Sapiens to be able to produce viable offspring but not close enough to produce a language complex enough to enable the exchange of complex ideas. They were therefore not able to allow the regular movement from tribe to tribe and hence the transmission of ideas from other areas.