Hypothesis & Theory ARTICLE

Front. Psychol., 04 July 2013 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00397

On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neandertal linguistic capacities and its consequences

Dan Dediu1,2* and Stephen C. Levinson2,3†
  • 1Language and Genetics Department, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, Netherlands
  • 2Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University Nijmegen, Nijmegen, Netherlands
  • 3Language and Cognition Department, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, Netherlands

It is usually assumed that modern language is a recent phenomenon, coinciding with the emergence of modern humans themselves. Many assume as well that this is the result of a single, sudden mutation giving rise to the full “modern package.” However, we argue here that recognizably modern language is likely an ancient feature of our genus pre-dating at least the common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals about half a million years ago. To this end, we adduce a broad range of evidence from linguistics, genetics, paleontology, and archaeology clearly suggesting that Neandertals shared with us something like modern speech and language. This reassessment of the antiquity of modern language, from the usually quoted 50,000–100,000 years to half a million years, has profound consequences for our understanding of our own evolution in general and especially for the sciences of speech and language. As such, it argues against a saltationist scenario for the evolution of language, and toward a gradual process of culture-gene co-evolution extending to the present day. Another consequence is that the present-day linguistic diversity might better reflect the properties of the design space for language and not just the vagaries of history, and could also contain traces of the languages spoken by other human forms such as the Neandertals.

Keywords: language evolution, human evolution, language contact, genetic admixture

Citation: Dediu D and Levinson SC (2013) On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neandertal linguistic capacities and its consequences. Front. Psychol. 4:397. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00397

Received: 02 February 2013; Accepted: 12 June 2013;
Published online: 05 July 2013.

Edited by:

Sonja A. E. Kotz, Max Planck Institute Leipzig, Germany

Reviewed by:

Stefano F. Cappa, Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, Italy
Sonja A. E. Kotz, Max Planck Institute Leipzig, Germany

Copyright © 2013 Dediu and Levinson. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.

*Correspondence: Dan Dediu, Language and Genetics Department, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Wundlaan 1, 6525 XD Nijmegen, Netherlands e-mail: dan.dediu@mpi.nl

These authors have contributed equally to this work.

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