Re: Archaic H. sapiens???

Michael McBroom (
Mon, 06 Jan 1997 11:06:17 -0500

J E Hawcroft wrote:
> Michael McBroom wrote:
> > 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.

> Lieberman's work was seriously undermined by an article by Hayden (I
> think - anyway it was in AJPA in January 1994) who said that Lieberman's
> reconstruction of the neanderthal pharynx was all wrong.

News to me. I'm headed for the library today. Dunno if they have the
AJPA there, but I'll look for this cite in MLA and LLBA.

> Lieberman had
> shown the pharynx down in the chest, an impossible position, and
> concluded that the neanderthals couldn't possibly have a modern pharynx.
> But he did this calculation with the neanderthal skull in the wrong
> plane, and Hayden (I think) showed that if you put the skull in the
> normal in vivo position a modern-type pharynx could easily have been
> accomodated in the neanderthal throat.

This is not entirely correct. Lieberman gathered a sample from a large
group of people, measuring the tongue movements associated with certain
cardinal vowel sounds. He then tried to "fit" this sort of movement
into the Neanderthal suprapharyngeal airway, adjusting for differences
of scale and the like. His conclusion was that the larynx would have to
reside in the chest in order to have the same amount of movement -- a
highly unlikely position. His point was that Neanderthal was incapable
of producing certain vowels (and consonants). I have made the point
that this does not, by itself, preclude "language." But it would seem
to argue for a less advanced form of vocal communication than what we

> On the other hand,claims that the Kebara hyoid, a neanderthal one which
> looks modern, proves neanderthals could talk are equally unfounded. It's
> true, but pigs also have hyoids identical to those of modern humans, and
> anyway, you can't deduce much about soft tissues from something like a
> hyoid.

Pig hyoids are "identical?" If this is truly the case, then it would
certainly seem to undermine any hyoid argument. I agree, though, that
while the Kebara hyoid is a provocative find, it by itself does not
necessarily prove much.

> All these arguments are here because someone in this thread suggested
> that the possession of language was a "H. sapiens" gift, and that was why
> neanderthals and erecti were different from "archaic Hom sap". This is by
> no means an accepted idea; many people consider neanderthals part of the
> "sapiens" group and no-one knows whether they could talk or not; people
> like Dunbar and Duchin have argued that H. erectus should have been able
> to talk, and others have suggested that fully modern, Upper Palaeolithic
> hom sap shows no irrefutable evidence of language.

Being a student of linguistics, and specializing in the origins of
language, (just so you know where my bias lies), I am a subscriber to
the view that the genus Homo split off from Australopithecus once a
system of vocal communication became a clear adaptive advantage. Recent
works have pointed to the evidence of a Broca's area in H. habilis,
based on depressions left in certain specimens' skulls. Last year,
however, Alan Walker & Pat Shipman, in their book _The Wisdom of the
Bones_, discussed more recent studies of the brain while one is speaking
or listening. The studies indicate that the areas of the brain which
are active during speech and listening are diffused throughout the
brain, so this takes away much of the previous argument for evidence of
language in H. habilis. Broca's area is probably more of a junction or
bottleneck than an origination area. However, at least some specimens
of H. habilis do show the beginnings of flexure of the basicranial area,
which is an important, if indirect, indicator regarding the overall
shape of the suprapharyngeal airway. This tantalizing tidbit, while
small in itself, suggests that a "positive feedback loop" may have
begun, in which language and cognition together led to the steady
increase in cranial capacity we see evinced by the fossil record.

> For my two penn'orth, if neanderthals couldn't talk what on earth were
> they using that enormous brain for?

Well, as you probably know, some people suggest that the Neanderthal
brain was organized differently than our own. Derek Bickerton, a
linguist at the University of Hawaii, and one who has studied language
evolution at some length, has put forth a rather controversial theory in
his two most recent books on the subject: _Language and Species (1990),
and _Language and Human Behavior_ (1994). First of all, Bickerton
believes that Neanderthal, as well as H. erectus, had what he calls
"protolanguage," which would be typologically similar to modern
pidgins. One of the characteristics of a pidgin, in contrast to natural
languages, is its general lack of a highly structured grammar. But if
we may imagine a situation in which the pidgin grows in vocabulary size,
while still retaining its unstructured character, we have a system of
communication that becomes quite difficult to use, from an
*organizational* perspective. Bickerton's argument is that it may be
that Neanderthal required this larger brain size in order to process its
unwieldy language. The argument goes that with the advent of H.
sapiens, however, there was a fundamental difference in organization,
where not nearly the amount of brainpower was required to process
language as had been previously necessary. Therefore, large brain size
was no longer required, and since the brain is a big energy consumer,
brain size is something that then became selected against. Hence the
reason why modern H. sapiens have smaller (on average) cranial
capacities than Neanderthal and some archaic H.s. specimens. We do more
with less. As I mentioned above, this is a quite controversial stance
that Bickerton has taken, but I think it is a very interesting one,


Michael McBroom
CSUF Linguistics