2 January 2009

The year of the Neanderthal

Who were the Neanderthals? Why did they become extinct? What was their relationship with early humans? Did they co-exist, or mix? Did they speak languages similar to ours? Did they disappear because of climate change? Or was it because they couldn’t compete with the emerging, better adapted Homo Sapiens Sapiens?... There are many questions about Homo Neanderthalensis and also many researchers trying to find the answers. The Web is full of sites devoted to Neanderthals or to human evolution. One that I found particularly interesting is a blog called Mundo Neandertal, written in Spanish. Its author, Martín Cagliani, has already published more than 500 posts in it, including all sorts of information about the subject and even interviews with some of the leading researchers. Definitely, the Neanderthals are generating a lot of news, both in the Web and in traditional press. The good thing is that behind the news there is usually an interesting research project. For example this one: the reconstruction of a Neanderthal vocal tract, based on the remaining fossil record (you can read the information about this experiment here, and even listen to a sample recording). Or this one: in 2006, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology launched the Neanderthal Genome Project, which has already yielded highly interesting results. Quite notably, the researchers in this project come from various scientific areas, including linguistics and primatology.

Cova Negra, near Xàtiva (Valencia, Spain), a cave where some Neanderthal fossils have been found.

Many of the questions about extinct hominids may never be answered, but the great amount of recent research, with a combination of new discoveries (fossils, archaeological sites) and the application of new techniques, for example DNA sequencing or climatic simulations, is at least suggesting important clues about our past. And that includes the study of human language and its origins. Are we the only hominids with a capacity to produce oral speech? Did the ‘languages’ of other species, especially the ones closest to us, e.g. the Neanderthals, influence our own way of producing speech? There is always a new question for the researcher.

The past year has seen important developments in the study of Neanderthals and it seems that there is more news on the way. Who knows? Maybe 2009 will be the year of the Neanderthal.


JoseAngel said...

Hace poco escribía yo esto sobre los primeros asturianos:

Jesús Sanchis said...

Thank you for the link, José Ángel. I've read it, and it's quite interesting.