Neandertals Had Same "Language Gene" as Modern Humans

Mason Inman
for National Geographic News
October 18, 2007
Neandertals might have been able to talk like us, a new genetic study suggests.

A team of European researchers tested Neandertal bones recovered from a Spanish cave for a certain gene, called FOXP2, that has been dubbed "the speech and language gene."

It's the only gene known so far that plays a key role in language. When mutated, the gene primarily affects language without affecting other abilities.

The new study suggests that Neandertals (often spelled Neanderthals) had the same version of this gene that modern humans share—a different version than is found in chimpanzees and other apes.

"From the point of this gene, there is no reason to think that Neandertals did not have language as we do," said the study's lead author, Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

"Of course many genes are involved in language, so we can't say from this result alone that Neandertals spoke just as modern humans do," Krause added.

Mutated Gene

People with FOXP2 mutations have severe problems talking. The disorder stems from problems with making the quick and complex movements of the mouth and tongue needed to talk intelligibly.

Those affected also seem to have trouble with language comprehension. Scientists don't know if that's a result of their difficulties with talking or an extra effect of the genetic mutation.

Svante Pääbo, also of the Max Planck Institute and an author on the new study, heads a larger effort to sequence the Neandertal genome. He led earlier work that showed FOXP2 differs between humans and chimpanzees, our closest living relatives.

Sometime after the human and chimp lineages split off from each other about six million years ago, the gene may have accumulated two changes.

This new version of the gene appears to have swept through the population, replacing the earlier version, because it gave people some advantages, presumably with speech.

Through human evolution, this new gene stayed remarkably the same, experts said. (See a map of the human journey.)

Gene Comparison

Pääbo and his team were curious how Neandertals' FOXP2 gene stacked up against ours.

"This is the first time a specific nuclear gene has been retrieved from Neandertals," Krause said.

Only genes from mitochondria, the energy powerhouses inside cells, had been sequenced before.

The researchers also took steps to ensure they didn't contaminate the samples.

"We have done many controls to make sure that our results are not due to contamination by modern human DNA or other potential errors," Krause added.

For example, they checked for signs that Neandertals and humans had bred with each other but didn't see any signs of this in the genes. (Related news: "Odd Skull Boosts Human, Neandertal Interbreeding Theory" [August 2, 2007].)

Krause and colleagues concluded that modern humans' version of FOXP2 must have arisen sometime before our lineage split from Neandertals', about 300,000 to 400,000 years ago.

The study is published online today in the journal Current Biology.

A Challenge to Speech Theory

"Many researchers ... have argued for language [as] a feature that separated Homo sapiens from the Neandertals and perhaps led to their demise," said anthropologist Terrence Deacon of the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the study. (Related news: "Neandertals Beaten by Rivals' Word Skills, Study Says" [November 24, 2004].)

But the new study suggests that view is wrong, he said.

The finding "significantly challenges arguments for the recent evolution of spoken language, confined to anatomically modern Homo sapiens," Deacon added.

Faraneh Vargha-Khadem, a neuroscientist at University College London who studies people with FOXP2 mutations, said she's not surprised by the new findings.

She had expected Neandertals would have had the same version of the gene as modern humans do.

"Neandertals probably vocalized too," she said, but "it takes a lot more than FOXP2 to produce the mind that produces language."

Jianzhi Zhang is a geneticist at the University of Michigan who was also not involved in the research.

He was surprised by the new findings, since earlier genetic studies suggested the Neandertal version of the gene would be different.

"It would be interesting to look for other genetic changes required for speech and put them in order of when they happened during human evolution," Zhang said.

"It would then be possible to tell how well each extinct hominid species spoke."

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