Re: Archaic H. sapiens???

Ralph L Holloway (
Tue, 7 Jan 1997 01:15:02 -0500

On Mon, 6 Jan 1997, Michael McBroom wrote:

> 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
> possess.

Wasn't this done basically by computer simulation? How is it possible to
model the vocal pathways and apparatus in a fossil hominid given the wide
range of vocal anatomy in modern humans and abilities to produce the full
spectrum of sounds?

> 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,

Being one of those involved in studying the brain endocasts of Homo
habilis since the early '70's, I remember pointing out Broca's area to
Richard Leakey on the KNM-ER 1470 skull. The rest of the Homo habilis
endocasts that I've worked, such as OH 7, OH 13, OH 24, don't have those
regions intact, so i don't know what recent works you are referring to.
Could you elaborate?

> 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.

It's quite true that other areas of the brain do light up during speech
and other language acts, including the cerebellum, but Broca's region
still remains heavily involved in the motor processing of language, so it
really need not "take away" the previous arguments regarding the
possibility of speech in Homo habilis.

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.

This was suggested back in the '60's, and remains an intriguing

> > 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,
> nonetheless.

An interesting speculation, indeed, which would then lead us to believe
that Eskimo peoples and Buriats, who have larger brains than we, must be
speaking more primitive Neandertal-like languages. Since you are a
Linguist, how do you explain this? The larger Neandertal brain could more
parsimoniously be explained as a part of both cold adaptation and larger
lean body mass, as I tried to do in 1985 in Eric Delson's Ancestors...

Ralph Holloway