Re: Archaic H. sapiens???

Michael McBroom (
Mon, 06 Jan 1997 00:59:22 -0800

> Michael McBroom ( wrote:

> : I'm a student of linguistics whose specialty is the biological origins
> : of language. Recently, in my research, I came across some information
> : that casts a new light (to me, at least -- the information is not new)
> : on at least some of the archaic specimens. While the exterior
> : appearance to an archaic skull may resemble a large-brained H erectus in
> : some ways, or a Neanderthal without the protruding face in others, the
> : most telling difference is in an area that is not so obvious: the
> : basicranial area. Reconstructions of the vocal tract done by Philip
> : Lieberman (see his book, _On the Origins of Language_, 1975 -- a little
> : old, but still one of the best resources on the subject) indicate that
> : some archaic specimens had vocal tracts that were essentially modern in
> : appearance, in sharp contrast to the vocal tracts of H.e. and
> : Neanderthal. This characteristic is highly significant, since it is
> : most likely an indicator of the beginnings of true, full-blown language
> : in the genus. When looked at from that perspective, these specimens are
> : entirely deserving of their H.s. categorization. IMHO.
> I believe the hyoid of H. neand. has been found and is entirely modern in
> appearence.

Yes, indeed. That would be from the Neanderthal remains that were
unearthed in a cave outside of Kebara, Israel, back in 1993. It's since
come to be known as the "Kebara hyoid." If memory serves, this specimen
was dated to about 60,000 years BP. I was deeply fascinated by the news
of this discovery, since it seems to contradict the reconstructions done
by Lieberman and others. Lieberman has responded to the news of the
Kebara hyoid by stating that there is quite a bit of cartilage
associated with the hyoid bone, and that the shape of the cartilage is
just as significant, and that we do not know what the configuration of
the associated cartilage would have been. This is all very true. After
pondering the known facts, though, I tend to think more along these
lines: The Kebara hyoid reinforces the various pieces of cultural and
fossil evidence which indicate that Neanderthal had some sort of pretty
good communication system. The morphology of the Neanderthal palate and
basicranial area, however, indicates that his vowel and consonant
inventory was much more limited than ours. So, it seems more likely to
me that, while Neanderthal had a fairly sophisticated vocal
communication system, something that would enable him to contemplate
past and future, something that would allow the elders of the society to
pass on their wisdom to the younger members, it was still something that
fell well short of what we call language. There seems to be one
pervasive -- and crucial -- characteristic of modern language that
Neanderthal may have lacked: improvisation, invention, originality . . .
call it what you will.

> It can be argued that H. erectus's adaptation to the savannah environment
> suggests that H. erectus was capable of vocal representations (primitive
> language) used in long-distance communication to share information on
> threats and resources within the group.

It certainly can be, but this doesn't really address the matter of the
emergence of true language. H. erectus' language skills were almost
certainly not at the level of Neanderthal's.


Michael McBroom
CSUF Linguistics