Neanderthal Jokes: The Biomechanics and Cultural Basis for Language

“(Grunting in a Feminine Voice)!”-Neanderthal Comedian

“That’s the dirtiest wooly rhinoceros joke that I’ve ever heard!”  At least, that’s what I might have said if I had lived in Europe some 50 kya… or if neanderthals had ever developed the ability to speak.

Speech is often considered one of the defining characteristics of humanity.  Our ability to express complex symbolic ideas and communicate them verbally has been instrumental in allowing humans to progress to where we are today.  Thus, given it’s importance, the exact point of origin of speech and whether it developed in any species other than Homo sapiens has been a topic of some debate.

Various lines of evidence have been considered when examining the speech potential of extinct hominids.  Some have looked at fossilized remains to determine if anatomical features connected to speech in modern humans, such as the morphology of the brain, spinal cord and upper respiratory tract, were present in any of the species that came before.  For example, D’Anastasio et al. (2013) believe that, after comparison of the human and neanderthal remains in conjunction with internal geometries, neanderthal hyoids were subject to the same stresses of modern humans, which is indicative of speech.

However, archaeological evidence does necessarily corroborate this view.  According to Walker (1994), no evidence exists for symbolic signs prior to 32 kya, roughly 8 ky after neanderthals disappear from the fossil record.  As such, one must ask, why would a species with no evidence of the need to communicate complex symbolic ideas speak?  The answer is that they wouldn’t.  Even if D’Anastasio et al. conclusions are correct, it does not indicate that neanderthals actually spoke.  We must consider that the limited cultural transmission attributed to H. neanderthalensis could be most easily and effectively achieved through direct observation eliminating the need for the development of language (Walker. 1994).  Whether you call it parsimony or Occam’s Razor, this is the simplest and most likely answer.

In conclusion, objects of scientific interest should be evaluated using multiple lines of evidence in tandem with one another.  Life is far more complicated than most people make it out to be and a more complete understanding of the world and its inner workings requires a holistic and multifaceted approach.