Thursday, October 18, 2007

Newsflash: Neanderthals had modern FOXP2

So, as revealed in a study by Krause et al. (2007) currently in press in Current Biology, it turns out that:

"...Neandertals carried a FOXP2 protein that was identical to that
of present-day humans in the only two positions that differ
between human and chimpanzee. Leaving out the
unlikely scenario of gene flow, this establishes that
these changes were present in the common ancestor
of modern humans and Neandertals." (Krause et al. 2007: 4).

You can also read a press release here. In other words, despite some recent claims that 'modern' FOXP2 proteins would be shown to distinguish modern humans from Neanderthals (e.g., Klein 2003, Mellars 2006), it turns out that this is not the case after all. Since FOXP2 has been considered by those and other researchers as the basis for the capacity for modern language, should we now stop arguing about whether Neanderthals had the capacity (and therefore likely used) fully modern speech? Not to toot my own horn or anything, but this is exactly the issue that had been discussed in my post on Neanderthal tooth-picking and its implications for their linguistic abilities (check out the comments, especially). Obviously, FOXP2 is not the only gene involved in language, so the question isn't truly resolved, but it's the one that's most often and most vociferously brought up in debates about Neanderthal linguistic ability, so this is pretty big news indeed for paleoanthropologists.

In any case, here's the abstract of the Krause et al. piece:

"Although many animals communicate vocally, no extant
creature rivals modern humans in language ability.
Therefore, knowing when and under what evolutionary
pressures our capacity for language evolved is of great
interest. Here, we find that our closest extinct relatives,
the Neandertals, share with modern humans two
evolutionary changes in FOXP2, a gene that has been
implicated in the development of speech and language.
We furthermore find that in Neandertals, these changes
lie on the common modern human haplotype, which
previously was shown to have been subject to a selective
sweep. These results suggest that these genetic
changes and the selective sweep predate the common
ancestor (which existed about 300,000–400,000 years
ago) of modern human and Neandertal populations.
This is in contrast to more recent age estimates of the
selective sweep based on extant human diversity data.
Thus, these results illustrate the usefulness of retrieving
direct genetic information from ancient remains for
understanding recent human evolution."

And note that last bit about the age estimates - in the long run, I think this may turn out to be one of the more important implications of this study, as it emphasizes the need to look at what the paleoanthropological record itself tells us about these issues, as opposed to genetic studies on modern populations alone.


Klein, R. 2003. Whither the Neanderthals? Science 299:1525-1527.

Krause, J., C. Lalueza-Fox, L. Orlando, W. Enard, R. E. Green, . H. A. Burbano, J.-J. Hublin, C. Hänni, J. Fortea, M. de la Rasilla, J. Bertranpetit, A. Rosas, and S. Pääbo. 2007. The Derived FOXP2 Variant of Modern Humans Was Shared with Neandertals. Current Biology: DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.10.008.

Mellars, P. 2006. Why did modern human populations disperse from Africa ca. 60,000 years ago? A new model. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103:9381-9386.


Anne Gilbert said...

I always knew Neandertals could talk! Or at least I always suspected it! But I doubt the old "grunting" picture will die easily.
Anne G

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Anne - the old grunting picture will unfortunately probably never die. However, it's like some of the stuff I mentioned in my discussion of Neanderthal toothpicking... Neanderthals hunted, made complex tools, moved about their landscape logistically, procured far-ranging raw material, on occasion displayed symbolic behavior, etc, etc, etc... PLUS, they had essentially modern voiceboxes and large, complex brains.

I don't think it's just the genetic evidence that should convince us that they were able to speak something very much like modern humans - plus, I'd be willing to bet some serious cash that "Neanderthal language" is a misnomer to begin with. Look at the geographical range of the Neanderthals and look at how many languages you have in the same area today, all likely derived from a likely more or less common stock some thousands of years old. these languages are spoken by groups that were historically so much more interconnected than Neanderthals (or EUP groups for that matter) likely ever were. I'd be more than willing to bet that there were a wide range of more-or-less closely related languages being spoken in Late Pleistocene Eurasia in the Middle Paleolithic.