Scientists who have been trawling through the DNA found in Neanderthal bones have discovered that the now extinct species had a “language gene” that is only found in modern humans.
Their controversial findings create the tantalising possibility that Neanderthals were in fact capable of speech much like humans and communicated with each other through their own language.
As language is seen as one of the key cornerstones that has set humans apart from other animals and allowed sophisticated cultures to develop, many anthropologists now believe it may have allowed Neanderthals to have their own culture.
It is a stark contrast to the traditional image of Neanderthals as simple-minded cavemen and the latest research has shed new light on how Neanderthals evolved from our common ancestor more than 400,000 years ago.
Professor Svante Paabo, who has been leading the Neanderthal genome project at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said the presence of the language gene would change the way people view Neanderthals.
He said: “It is not a compliment to be called a Neanderthal, but we are finding that the Neanderthal DNA looks much more like contemporary humans than chimps.
“The human variations of this gene involved in the use of language are not found in apes and for a long time there has been speculation Neanderthals would have a different gene and so a different linguistic ability.
“By looking at their DNA, we have found that from the point of view of this gene, there is no reason they would not have spoken like we do. It is a very contentious area with a lot of different views.”
His teams findings support previous work that has attempted to model the Neanderthals throat and larynx from their remains. While some scientists have insisted they would have spoken, others have dismissed the idea.
Until recently common scientific opinion has painted a picture of Neanderthals as a slow and dim-witted species that was outwitted by its smarter cousins who went on to become modern humans while the Neanderthals died out.
But there is now a growing consensus that Neanderthals were perhaps far more sophisticated than they have been given credit for capable of making stone tools and even cleaned their teeth.
The discovery of the gene, called FOXP2, have provided the strongest evidence yet that these heavily built species were capable of speech, although the researchers are unable to say what extent their linguistic ability would have been.
FOXP2 is thought to be crucial to the development of language as it governs the fine control of muscles that is needed to form words with the larynx, lips and tongue.
Professor Paabo has been leading research to create the first ever profile of the Neanderthal genome from the remains of nine Neanderthal’s, thought to have been killed and eaten by cannibals 42,000 years ago, that were found in a cave in Northern Spain.
The bones are carefully collected and frozen in the cave to avoid contamination before the DNA is extracted in the lab and profiled.
But some scientists have warned that it is not possible draw any conclusions about the Neanderthals ability to speak from the research, which is published in the journal Current Biology.
Dr Simon Fisher, one of the scientists at Oxford University who discovered FOXP2, said: “This is a really fascinating study, but analysis of a single gene is not enough to resolve the big question of whether or not Neanderthals were capable of speech or for us to estimate what level of complexity their vocal communication could achieve.”
Dr Simon Underdown, an anthropologist at Oxford Brookes University, insists, however, that the new research will revolutionise the way people look at Neanderthals.
He said: “This research should finally blow away the last vestiges of the Neanderthal as a dull-witted cave man.”
- Lived 350,000 -24,000 years ago
- Spread across Europe and as far east as southern Siberia and Uzbekistan
- Last known refuge in caves in southern Iberia
- Died off just 10,000 yeas after modern man arrived in Europe
- Distinct species from modern humans although scientists debate if they interbred
- Average male stood 5.4 feet tall while females were 5 feet tall but heavily built
- Skulls had 10 per cent greater capacity than modern humans
- Most Neanderthals died by the age of 30 years old
- Named after Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany, where first key fossils were found
- Early Neanderthals scavenged for food but later used may have used spears to hunt