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#685 Could Neanderthals Talk?

June 07, 2020

Dear Dr. Craig, I just watched your dialogue with Joshua Swamidass on “Capturing Christianity” in which you adopt the view that the historical Adam is very old indeed, most likely a member of the species homo heidelbergensis by your calculations. The main difficulty I see with that view is the problem of human language. The best evidence we have suggests that human language evolved somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 years ago, long after homo heidelbergensis died out. And yet the book of Genesis seems to make clear that Adam and Eve as well as their immediate offspring are able to use and understand complex spoken language, i.e. words and syntax as opposed to mere protolinguistic grunting and pointing. That seems to be a serious inconsistency, especially given how uniquely human language really is.

With best wishes,


Flag of Spain. Spain

Photo of Dr. Craig.

Dr. craig’s response


You’re absolutely right, Scott, to see language ability as indicative of modern human cognitive capacity. You’re also right in saying that Genesis portrays Adam and Eve as having just such an ability.

The obvious difficulty in figuring out how far back linguistic capacity goes is that language doesn’t leave any traces in the archaeological record (at least until writing was invented around 3,000 B.C.). So what palaeoanthropologists have to do is look for anatomical and archaeological clues that would likely suggest linguistic ability.

Anatomically, a large brain size in a hominin is a prerequisite for language capacity, and the presence of a large brain increases the probability of linguistic ability. So Lewin and Foley think that once hominins attained a brain size in excess of 1000 cm3 there seems to be little doubt that linguistic capabilities existed and that therefore language may have been present at least in Neanderthals.[1]

Given the paucity of information to be gained from cranial endocasts, investigators have turned to a study of other anatomical features requisite for speech. A great deal of study has gone into exploring the significance of the differences in the Neanderthal vocal tract compared to that of Homo sapiens. Noting studies which purport to show that a Neanderthal equipped with a modern vocal tract would have a larynx impossibly low in the chest, Daniel Lieberman asks, “If true, does this result mean that Neanderthals, other species of archaic Homo, and possibly even some early modern humans couldn’t speak? Of course not. It is hard to imagine that they lacked the capacity for speech, particularly given the large size of their brains. But it may be possible that their articulation was less precise than an adult modern human’s, perhaps more like that of a 4–6 year-old, lacking fully quantal eehs and oohs.”[2] Indeed, Philip Lieberman thinks that “Speech must have been in place in archaic hominids ancestral to humans and Neanderthals. There would have been no selective advantage for retaining mutations that yielded the species-specific human speech producing anatomy at the cost of increased morbidity from choking, unless speech was already present.”[3]

A survey of the archaeological evidence points to behaviors among Neanderthals and other archaic humans that plausibly required linguistic ability. Dediu and Levinson summarize,

Language affords culture-carrying capacity (e.g. there are no advanced technologies without language), and this linkage allows reasonable inferences from the archeological record. Therefore, we think it is overwhelmingly likely that Neanderthals were as much articulate beings as we ourselves are, that is, with large vocabularies and combinatorial structures that allowed propositional content and illocutionary force to be conveyed. Only such an advanced communication system could have carried the advanced cultural adaptations that Neanderthals exhibited. . . .

If one considers all of the cultural skills needed to survive in ecologies from the Arctic to game-poor Mediterranean littorals, it is difficult to argue that Neanderthals lacked complex linguistic codes, capable of communicating about spatial locations, hunting and gathering, fauna and flora, social relations, technologies, and so on. This would imply a large lexicon, and propositional encoding. Granting Neanderthals advanced language capacities seems to us inevitable.[4]

Let me give you four specific examples, each astonishing. First, the Neanderthal constructions in Bruniquel Cave in France dating to 176,000 years ago. Jacques Jaubert, the head archaeologist at the site, reports,

This type of construction implies the beginnings of a social organization: This organization could consist of a project that was designed and discussed by one or several individuals, a distribution of the tasks of choosing, collecting and calibrating the speleofacts [stalagmites], followed by their transport (or vice versa) and placement according to a predetermined plan. This work would also require adequate lighting. . . . The complexity of the structure, combined with its difficult access (335 m from the cave entrance), are signs of a collective project and therefore suggest the existence of an organized society that was already on the path to ‘modernity’.[5]

It is not just the complexity of the structures, however, that is indicative of design. Beavers’ dams and huts are probably just as complex but are the result of blind instinct, not conception and planning, as is evident from their uniformity and frequency. What distinguishes the Neanderthal constructions is their conventionality, evident from their rarity and placement, which is the essence of symbolic thinking. Reflecting on the significance of the discovery at Bruniquel Cave, Chris Stringer remarks, “this discovery provides clear evidence that Neanderthals had fully human capabilities in the planning and the construction of ‘stone’ structures.”[6]

Second, the amazing recent discovery of a piece of string manufactured by Neanderthals 40-50,000 years ago.[7] A fragment of three-ply fiber cord has been recovered from the Neanderthal site of Abri du Maras in France. The cord has three strands of fibers obtained from the inner bark of a conifer tree and each twisted clockwise and then as group twisted counterclockwise. The excavators emphasize that cordage manufacture involves a complex sequence of operations, including processing of the bark fibers and keeping track of multiple, sequential operations simultaneously to weave a cord. “Indeed, the production of cordage requires an understanding of mathematical concepts and general numeracy in the creation of sets of elements and pairs of numbers to create a structure.”[8] As the structure becomes more complex (multiple cords twisted to form a rope, ropes interlaced to form knots), it “requires a cognitive complexity similar to that required by human language.”[9] Hardy et al. opine that in view of the ongoing revelations of Neanderthal art and technology, “it is difficult to see how we can regard Neanderthals as anything other than the cognitive equals of modern humans.”[10]

Third, Neanderthal cave art. You’re from Spain, Scott, so you’ll be interested to learn that artistic representations discovered at Neanderthal sites in Spain have supplied evidence of symbolic thinking. Hand stencils have been identified in Maltravieso Cave, along with other instances of non-figurative paintings in La Pasiega Cave and Ardales Cave. The paintings date collectively from a minimum of 65,000 years ago. Reflecting on the significance of this finding, Hoffman et al. state,

This cave painting activity constitutes a symbolic behavior by definition, and one that is deeply rooted. At Ardales, distinct episodes over a period of more than 25 ka corroborate that we are not dealing with a one-off burst but with a long tradition that may well stretch back to the time of the annular construction found in Bruniquel cave, France, dated to 176.5 ± 2.1 ka ago. Dating results for the excavation site at Cueva de los Aviones, Spain, which place symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Neandertals at >115 ka ago, further support the antiquity of Neanderthal symbolism.[11]

The contemporaneous presence of similar cave art in both Spain and Indonesia half the world away and the age of ornamental use of shells by Neanderthals implies an origin of symbolic behavior which is vastly older still. Hoffmann et al. conclude, “The corollary of these findings is that the capacity for symbolism must have been inherited from a common ancestor. As a working hypothesis, we suggest that the origins of language and the advanced cognition characteristic of extant humans may precede the period before the divergence of the Neandertal lineage, more than half-a-million years ago.”[12][TB1] 

Finally, fourth, the evidence of big game hunting. The eight wooden spears recovered at Schöningen, Germany, point to pre-Neanderthal cooperation and planning that plausibly required linguistic ability. The spears date to the third interglacial period 400-300,000 years ago. Reproductions of the Schöningen spears have been made, and they turn out to be on a par with Olympic javelins![13] Hartmut Thieme, the chief excavator at Schöningen, contends that the manufacture alone of the spears, not to mention the cooperation involved in hunting wild herd animals, is sufficient for abstract, conceptual thinking.[14] The spears were found in association with remains of a herd of wild horses, the prey of the hunters. The hunters apparently pinned the herd of horses against the shore of a lake and may have driven them into the water where their escape could be slowed, thus evincing a hunting strategy. Thieme believes that in order for such a venture to succeed, “extremely careful planning, coordination, and discussion among the hunters” must have taken place, right down to the many details.[15] “Found in association with stone tools and the butchered remains of more than ten horses, the spears strongly suggest that systematic hunting, involving foresight, planning and the use of appropriate technology, was part of the behavioral repertoire of pre-modern hominids.”[16]  Thieme even believes that there must have already existed among the hunters at this early time “highly evolved, richly diverse, verbal communication.”[17]

Unfortunately, no human remains were found in connection with the Schöningen spears, leaving us to guess at the identity of the hunters. The incredible antiquity of these artifacts and their similarity to the finds at Clacton and Boxgrove, England, where human remains have been found, suggests that they are the design and manufacture of Homo heidelbergensis, the ostensible progenitor of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.

So I think you can see, Scott, that linguistic ability among Neanderthals and their progenitors can in no wise be ruled out.

[1] Roger Lewin and Robert A. Foley, Principles of Human Evolution, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), p. 474.

[2] Daniel E. Lieberman, The Evolution of the Human Head (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 330-31. A longer oral cavity “does not rule out the possibility that archaic Homo could speak or had sophisticated language, but it does suggest slightly less articulate (quantal) speech, perhaps comparable to a 4-6-year-old modern human’s” (Ibid., p. 589). Perhaps I might be permitted to report anecdotally that when my 2½ year old grandson says his A, B, Cs, his [ i ] and [ u ] sounds are perfectly clear.

[3] Philip Lieberman, “Current views on Neanderthal speech capabilities: A reply to Boe et al. (2002),” Journal of Phonetics 35/4 (2007): 559 [my emphasis].

[4] Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson, “Neanderthal language revisited: not only us,” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 21 (2018): 52-53.

[5] Jacques Jaubert et al., “Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France,” Nature 534 (2016), Extended Data, Fig. 8.

[7] B. L. Hardy et al., “Direct evidence of Neanderthal fibre technology and its cognitive and behavioral implications,” Science Reports 10 (2020): 4889 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-61839-w.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] D. L. Hoffmann, et al., “U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art,” Science 359, no. 6378 (23 Feb 2018), p. 915, DOI: 10.1126/science.aap7778. See also Dirk L. Hoffmann et al., “Symbolic Use of Marine Shells and Mineral Pigments by Iberian Neandertals 115,000 Years Ago,” Science Advances 4, no. 2 (February 2018): eaar5255, https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aar5255.

[12] Hoffmann et al., “Symbolic use.”

[13]The Schöningen spears average about 2.2 m in length and 500 gm in weight, making them only slightly heavier (100 g) than javelins thrown by female athletes.  Three wooden replicas of the spears were tested for distance, accuracy, and penetration. Without training with the spears, athletes were able to achieve comparable results to modern javelins.

[14] Hartmut Thieme, “Der grosse Wurf von Schöningen:  Das neue Bild zur Kultur des frühen Menschen,” in Die Schöninger Speere: Mensch und Jagd vor 400 000 Jahren, ed. Hartmut Thieme (Stuttgart: Konrad Thiess Verlag, 2007), p. 227.

[15] Hartmut Thieme, “Überlegungen zum Gesamtbefund des Wild-Pferd-Jagdlagers,” in Die Schöninger Speere, p. 178.

[16] Hartmut Thieme, “Lower Paleolithic Hunting Spears from Germany,” Nature 385 (27 February 1997), p. 807.

[17] Hartmut Thieme, “Der grosse Wurf von Schöningen,” p. 227.



- William Lane Craig