Re: Archaic H. sapiens???

Michael McBroom (
Tue, 07 Jan 1997 02:08:48 -0500

Ralph L Holloway wrote:
> 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?

This is discussed at considerable length in Lieberman (1984: 290-296)
and throughout Lieberman (1975), although I do not have a copy of the
latter available to cite the page numbers. As far as determining tongue
movements, this was not done by computer simulation. Above, I
erroneously stated that Lieberman had collected the tongue movement
data. Actually the tongue contours were derived from a cineradiographic
study of vowel production originally presented in Ladefoged et al.
(1972). Regarding the validity of applying these reconstructions to
various fossil crania and postcrania, Lieberman states (1984, p. 297):
"Recent studies that make use of quantitative measures of the flexure of
the basicranium make it possible to compare lage numbers of skulls
within the population that defines a species and to compare the skulls
of different species." From there until p. 303 he discusses numerous
studies that were conducted. On p. 303 he states:

"The analyses of Laitman, Heimbuch, and Crelin (1979), Laitman (1983),
and Laitman and Heimbuch (1982) involve consideration of the flexure of
the basicranium in the skulls of a large population of modern human
beings and living primates. These studies and the independent studies
of Bergland (1963), George (1978), and Grosmangin (1979) show that a
flexed basicranium supports a humanlike supralaryngeal airway. Laitman,
Heimbuch, and Crelin apply these metrics to fourteen fossil hominid
skulls. Their analysis shows that there 'appear to be at least two
pathways taken in the evolution of man's upper respiratory system after
a common pongid-like stage exhibited by the australopithecines. One
line appears to have terminated with Classic Neanderthals. The other
line, encompassing those hominids with basicrania and upper respiratory
structures of more modern appearance, may have given rise to modern man'
(1979, p. 15)."

> > 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?

Only Leakey and Lewin (1993) and Walker and Shipman (1996) refer
specifically to KNM-ER 1470. Two other sources I have, Bickerton (1990)
and Pinker (1994), refer simply to references citing evidence of Broca's
area in Homo habilis. So, most likely they are referring to 1470 as

> > 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.

Does processing take place in Broca's area, though, or is it merely
routed through it? I ask this because aphasias can be highly specific,
which leads one to wonder if the damage to Broca's area may in fact be
working to inhibit the flow that may have originated in another area.

> > > 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...
> book.

I mentioned at the outset that this was a controversial view. I
wouldn't doubt if, by now, somebody has taken Bickerton to task over
this very point, which is a good one. I agree that parsimony would
favor your explanation.


Michael McBroom
CSUF Linguistics