When did mankind discover the language?

Genome and language

Have modern humans and Neanderthals mixed together?

The theory that Neanderthals and early modern humans produced common offspring is certainly not entirely absurd. After all, in some areas they lived side by side for more than 10,000 years.

Some scholars of prehistoric human beings actually assume that an - isolated - intermingling has taken place. Because the fossil finds show clear differences between the Neanderthals and modern humans. Both types can be detected separately for over 50,000 years.

Today, thanks to modern molecular genetic techniques, the question of whether we are related to the Neanderthals or not can be clearly clarified. It is now possible to carry out a kind of "paternity test". Strictly speaking, one would have to speak of a "maternity test".

The molecular anthropologists examine the DNA from the so-called mitochondria (mt), the power plants of the cell. In contrast to the DNA of the cell nucleus, this mt-DNA is passed on to the offspring exclusively via the mother.

The examination of the mt-DNA has several advantages: On the one hand, the blood line can be clearly traced because it does not mix with the male genome. On the other hand, the probability of finding mt-DNA in fossil bones is greater than with DNA in the cell nucleus. Because every cell only has a single nucleus, but many mitochondria, each with a double strand of DNA.

In addition, scientists have good comparisons, because they have examined the mitochondrial genome of more than 1000 people - today's modern humans - worldwide.

This approach must have cost the early human researchers a little overcoming. After all, they had to saw a piece of bone out of the millennia-old bone in order to isolate the mitochondrial DNA and carry out their analyzes.

The result: If you compare the DNA of us humans today, it shows that we hardly differ from one another. It doesn't matter which continent we live on. In contrast, the DNA of Neanderthals differs from ours.

This finding supports the prevailing theory today that the Ice Age humans were not our direct ancestors, but a species of their own.

Could the Neanderthals speak?

Since a Neanderthal hyoid bone was found in the Kebara Cave in Israel in 1983, the probability that the Neanderthals could speak has risen sharply: The small bone is attached to muscles and ligaments that enable articulation with the tongue. Because the hyoid bone looks like ours, one has to assume that the Neanderthals were anatomically able to speak.

Geneticists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have also discovered another clue for the language skills of the Neanderthals. Like modern humans, they also had the FoxP2 language gene, in the same variant as we do.

However, the researchers wonder how extensive his vocabulary was, whether he had a grammar and what the language might have sounded like. Some suspect that the vowels a, i and u and the consonants g and k were tongue twisters for him. We do not know whether their language was therefore more primitive than ours.

Some researchers even assume that the Neanderthals passed on their experiences orally to their descendants. An indication of this can be found in the Pyrenees near today's town of Mauran. 4,000 bison were killed there - clearly too many for one-time hunting luck.

For centuries, Neanderthals must have cut off the animals' way into the valley in autumn at the same point. This not only speaks for the fact that they had organizational skills and were able to plan well. They must have passed on their knowledge to their children as well.