SCIENCE
07/13/2013 10:29 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

Neanderthal Language & Speech Shared With Modern Humans A Million Years Ago, Researchers Say

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When you picture Neanderthals, you might imagine subhuman brutes grunting -- but new research suggests these ancient hominids were more articulate than previously thought.

A recent paper, authored by Dutch scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics, argues that not only did Neanderthals and modern humans interact and interbreed -- but they also likely shared some elements of speech and language.

In fact, this new research claims that modern language and speech date back to the most recent ancestor we shared with the Neanderthals, Homo heidelbergensis. And it's even possible that the languages we speak today retain some elements of Neanderthal language.

"We suggest that if Neanderthals had something like modern speech and language, and that we did interact with them, then maybe mod languages have some trace of that language," Dr. Dan Dediu, psycholinguist and one of the study's lead authors, told The Huffington Post.

By pointing to ancient DNA and new archaeological discoveries, the linguists suggest that language developed through a gradual Darwinian process of both biological and cultural evolution -- rather than, as another popular theory states, through one or just a few random genetic mutations.

If this new theory is correct, the team's findings could push back the origins of modern language by 10 times what was previously thought.

While many believe that modern language began around 50,000 years ago, the paper names a period about a million years ago as the beginning of modern language -- some time between the emergence of our genus, Homo sapiens (around 1.8 million years ago), and the emergence of Homo heidelbergensis.

"I think the most important point we're trying to make is that modern language is old, which means that there has been a lot of time for language to become changed and shaped by culture and biology," Dediu said. "It didn't happen overnight."

The paper, published online on July 5 in the journal Frontiers in Language Sciences, comes on the heels of the Neanderthal Genome Project -- a 2010 collaboration of scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany who found that ancient Neanderthals and modern humans shared some DNA.

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