for National Geographic News
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.
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.
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