The Neanderthals, named after the Neander valley in Germany, have walked on the surface of the earth up until about 24,000 years ago. Based from the fossil records, it was deduced that the Neanderthals occupied much of Central and Southern Europe, Southwestern Asia, and the Iberian Peninsula. Most scientists have agreed to assign the group the scientific name of Homo neanderthalensis since studies based on mitochondrial DNA showed that the genetic differences among the two are great enough to be separated at the species level of taxonomy (Hodges, 2000). There are, though, still some that consider it as a subspecies of the modern human (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis).
Many studies have been made to know more about them, their physical appearance, behavior and the like. Little has been known, however, about their lifestyle. The tools that were found near the fossils of the Neanderthals were the only physical objects that were recovered along with the skeletons. Many sharp stone implements and tools for everyday tasks like spears and axes, which might been also used as weapons, were discovered. While they do not have an elaborate funeral tradition, an advanced culture is implicated by the existence of a burial system as these people have already have a sense of respect for the dead.
Still, the question of their communication skills persists among the researchers as the presence of a language usually signals the presence of an advanced culture. Most studies showed the possibility of the presence of organized oral communication, though some notable researches that were disproved by many others suggest the opposite.
Though the Neanderthals did not have descendants and thus became a dead end of an evolutionary line, they might have left a mark on the modern world by passing its language to the Basques, a group of ethnically distinct inhabitants of the Pyrenees area in Iberia near and along the border of France and Spain. After the Neanderthals were displaced as the wave of Cro-Magnons, the early Homo sapiens, scatter from the Middle East, existing traditions, including the language, might have been incorporated into those of the recent immigrants and fused into the foundation of Basque culture. The migration was confirmed by a study of the mitochondrial DNA and was dated around 40,000 years ago.
Based on Philip Lieberman’s study on the anatomy of Neanderthal skulls, the facial features of these people makes it difficult to pronounce the “ee” vowel, which is not present in the Basque language. The Basque language or Euskera is unlike any other in the present world since it has no modern language to which it is closely related with. It is not found in the Indo-European group of languages, nor in any other groups present in this world. It was inferred by linguists that the said language descended from an extinct language of some people inhabiting Western Europe earlier than the ancestors using the parent language of the modern-day languages of the area. The presence of the nearly impenetrable mountain valleys and very thick forests around their homeland is one of the reasons why the Basques had preserved their culture, including the language possibly acquired from the Neanderthals, since the prehistoric times.
The existence of a language among Neanderthals are supported by further studies on remains of these people. The physical evidences of the capacity of the Neanderthals to learn and use a language were studied. The brain of the modern man was compared by Le May (1975) in his study to the computed brain statistics from skulls of Neanderthals. Based on the similarity between the size of the brain, its significance to speech development had proved that Neanderthals have the neural capacity to communicate in a definite language.
The discovery of a well-preserved bone was described by Arensburg and Tiller (1991) who suggested that Neanderthals have developed the physical structures to articulate words. The development of brain differentiation necessary for learning and speaking a language was shown by further contributing evidence like endocranial casts. According to them, the development of complex social structures must have occurred because of some sort of communication that promoted understanding among Neanderthal people.
Many studies were done to disprove the claim of some researchers, like Lieberman (1984), Crelin (1987), and Laitman (1985), that Neanderthals did not have the capability to speak, as presented in the work of Arensburg et al. (1989). Lieberman and Crelin (1971) stated the similarity of the conditions of the “anatomical basis of speech”, the pharynx and the larynx, of the Neanderthals with those of human children at birth, and therefore these people are handicapped for talking. Their work was disproved by Boe, et al. (2002) by showing that the increase of the size of the pharynx and lowering the larynx are not the evolutionary necessities for verbal communication, which follows logically from the fact that adolescents and females, who have shorter pharynges than men, are able to pronounce vowels as clearly as those uttered by men. “If Neanderthals could not speak, it is not because of the articulatory acoustics as mentioned by Lieberman and Crelin, since Neanderthals were no more vocally handicapped than babies are.”
The cranial reconstruction of Neanderthals done by Lieberman and Crelin was shown by Falk (1975) as questionable, since it was based on the larynx of the Neanderthal La Chapelle aux Saints which has a high placement of hyoid bone, important in speech production as it supports the tongue and the larynx (Norman, 1999), unlike those of its relatives such as humans and chimpanzees. Comparison of the swallowing ability of the reconstructed Neanderthal with those of humans and chimpanzees was further used by Falk to question the validity of the statement of Lieberman and Crelin. Their study, however, was only limited to few aspects of the vocal tract like morphology and acoustics and did not have a definitive answer to the question of whether the Neanderthals have a language.
The discovery of an intact human hyoid bone was reported by Arensburg, et al (1989). The bone was dated to around the Middle Paleolithic, the time when Neanderthals existed, and was found to be similar to those of present-day humans. The similarity was used to conclude that the human morphology had evolved a fully developed voice tract capable of word articulation by the Middle Paleolithic.
Theories from evidences other than Neanderthal fossils were also made. There were some Basque folk tales about the Basajaunak, or the lords of the wood that taught agriculture and forging to mankind. These were a group of strong and robust people “who worked the land before [modern] man“. By comparing the physical characteristics of the people described in folk tales with those of the real people, conclusions about the possibility that the Basajaunak were the Neanderthals were made. The existence of a language must have facilitated the interactions among the presumed Neanderthals and the early modern humans since agricultural skills were acquired from the Basajaunak. However, the possibility can never be verified as folk tales carry little valuable details that are helpful in determining their validity.
There are, however, some reports that present the theory of Neanderthal babies, like modern human babies, uttering their first words that sound like “mama” and “papa”. The similarity of the family words among most of the different languages of the modern world was used to deduce that these common words came from a primitive language possibly used by the Neanderthals since associations were made between the Neanderthals and modern human babies. The theory that there was a common ancestry of all the language of the world, probably from the Neanderthals, was presented by Bancel to a conference in Oxford. There were, though, some who did not accept the proposition, as they explain that the first syllables spoken by their babies might have been associated to their parents, the first people that these children see.
Language can be traced in oral or written form. As the time that Neanderthals existed was considered a part of prehistory, no written records made by these people were found. No writing system was also traced back to the Paleolithic era, so there were no physical evidences that can be used to determine the existence of a language. Only some vague folk tales were found to be linked to the possibility of the existence of a language of the “people that lived before man”. A possible connection is present in the Basque language, but its relation to the language spoken by the Neanderthals is still not clear.
The studies presented above suggests that the Neanderthals have the capability to articulate words. However, these were based only from the remains of the Neanderthals. Little support is being given by apparently vague linguistic evidences. It was not found that these people do have a language, rather only the possibility of an organized system of oral communication.
Arensburg, B., and A. M. Tillier. “Speech and the Neanderthals“. Endeavour 15.1 (1991) :26-28. 5 May 2007 <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?db=pubmed&cmd=Retrieve&dopt=AbstractPlus&list_uids=1710561&query_hl=2&itool=pubmed_docsum>
Arensburg, B., A. M. Tillier, B. Vandermeersch, H. Duday. L. A. Schepartz, and Y. Rak. “A Middle Palaeolithic human hyoid bone”. Nature 338 (1989) : 758-760. 5 May 2007 <http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v338/n6218/abs/338758a0.html>.
Boe, Louis-Jean, Jean-Louis Heim, Kiyoshi Honda, and Shinji Maeda. “The Potential Neanderthal Vowel Space Was As Large As Those Of Modern Humans”. Journal of Phonetics 30 (2002) : 465-484. 5 May 2007 <www.icp.inpg.fr/OHLL/lesPubliRapports/JPhonetics.pdf>
Falk, D. “Comparative anatomy of the larynx in man and the chimpanzee: implications for language in Neanderthal”. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 43.1 (1975) : 123-132. 5 May 2007 <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?db=pubmed&cmd=Retrieve&dopt=AbstractPlus&list_uids=1098478&query_hl=2&itool=pubmed_docsum>.
Le May, M. “The Language Capability of Neanderthal Man:. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 42.1 (1975) : 9-14. 5 May 2007 <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=1090188&dopt=Abstract>.