Talking Cavemen?

Those Geico (and now ABC) cavemen might not be as fictional as you’d think (well, okay, the tennis playing and working on a thesis, maybe). I’m talking about talking.

Language is supposed to be the trait that distinguishes modern humans both from other animals and from our grunting ancestors. But a new study, published online today in Current Biology, suggests that while we might be special, we might not be unique. Contrary to the claim that the only gene known to play a role in speech and language arose in its current form some 20,000 years ago—long after modern Homo sapiens and Neanderthals diverged evolutionarily—it looks like Neanderthals had this FOXP2 gene. That raises the possibility that Neanderthals possessed some of the biological machinery necessary for language.

“From the point of view of this gene, there is no reason to think that Neanderthals would not have had the ability for language,” said Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. But since FOXP2 is not the only gene that underlies the capacity for language, Neanderthals would presumably have needed them, too, in order to have the gift of gab.

For the new study, Krause and his colleagues extracted DNA from Neanderthal fossils found in a cave in northern Spain, one of the species’ last redoubts before going extinct. They then identified and sequenced the Neanderthal FOXP2 gene. It was identical to the version found in modern humans.

Other studies of Neanderthal genes have turned out to be flawed due to contamination (what was thought to be an ancient gene actually came from DNA lying around the lab, as in sloughed-off skin cells). The scientists say they have taken pains to make sure this didn’t happen, including by sequencing parts of the Neanderthal Y chromosome, which was found to be different from the version in today’s men.

The finding, say the researchers, “establishes that these changes [in FOXP2 that distinguish it from the chimp version and, thus, presumably help confer the capacity for speech and language] were present in the common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals.” Our lineage might have been a much chattier past than anyone suspected.