Lecture on the anatomical origins of language

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[Please read all the way to the bottom of this post.  There are some big surprises here, including references to a book and an article on linguistics by the novelist Tom Wolfe (1930-2018), who's clearly on the wrong side of the political fence.  Despite the spate of mostly unremittingly anti-Wolfe comments, many important issues about the field are raised there.]

Monday, Mar 6, 5:15 pm-7:15 pm – Seminar 5

Mercedes Conde-Valverde, University of Alcalá, Alcalá de Henares (Spain)
Title: Sounds of the Past

Speaker: Dr. Mercedes Conde-Valverde
Title: The Sounds of the Past

Lecture via Zoom; https://binghamton.zoom.us/j/98942256738

Class meets in S2-259


One of the central questions in the study of the evolutionary history of human beings is the origin of language. Since words do not fossilize, paleoanthropologists have focused on establishing when the anatomical structures that support human speech, our natural way of communicating, first appeared and in which species of human ancestor. Humans differ from our closest primates not only in the anatomy of the vocal tract, which enables us to speak, but also in the anatomy and physiology of the ear. Our hearing is finely tuned and highly sensitive to the sounds of human speech, and is clearly distinct from that of a chimpanzee.

Nearly 20 years ago, our research team studied the hearing abilities in the fossil hominin remains from the Sima de los Huesos, dating to about 450,000 years ago in the Sierra de Atapuerca, and representing the ancestors of the Neandertals. This relied on the use of CT scans, virtual reconstructions and mathematical modelling of the sound power transmission through the ear, and allowed us to rigorously reconstruct the hearing of a fossil species for the first time. The results of this study were unequivocal: the people who lived 450,000 years ago in the Sierra de Atapuerca had a hearing pattern that was very similar to our own and clearly different from that of chimpanzees. This line of research was subsequently extended back in time, to study early hominin fossils dating to 2.0-2.5 million years ago. Our work showed that the hearing of these hominins was more similar to that of modern chimpanzees and different from that of modern humans.

Most recently, we have studied the hearing abilities in Neandertals, our closest evolutionary relatives and a group of humans who have long been the subject of fascination to paleoanthropologists for both their similarities and differences from ourselves. The hearing pattern in Neandertals was indistinguishable from our own. We believe this is some of the strongest evidence to date that Neanderthals had a similar oral communication system as modern humans. Due to the close relationship between hearing and communication, this discovery has important indications for how and when language evolved.


Bachelor’s in Biology, Master’s in Physical Anthropology and PhD in Human Evolution from the University of Alcalá with Extraordinary Doctorate Award. She has been a member of the Atapuerca team since 2011. She is currently the director of the Chair of Evolutionary Otoacoustics and Paleoanthropology at HM Hospitales and the University of Alcalá and Assistant Professor of the Department of Life Sciences at the University of Alcalá. Visiting Professor and Coordinator of the Human Evolution Area of the Francisco Javier Muñiz Research Center of the University of Buenos Aires and anthropology departmental affiliate at Binghamton University (New York). She is the author of more than a dozen scientific articles in journals including Nature Ecology and Evolution, Science Advances, eLife and Journal of Human Evolution.

Accompanying Reading

  • Conde-Valverde, M., Martínez, I., Quam, R.M., Rosa, M., Velez, A.D., Lorenzo, C., Jarabo, P., Bermúdez de Castro, J.M., Carbonell, E., Arsuaga, J.L., 2021. "Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had similar auditory and speech capacities." Nature Ecology and Evolution 5(5), 609-615.  Link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-021-01391-6
  • "Tom Wolfe takes on linguistics" (7/24/16) — In preparing this post (the current one above), I came upon an amazing parallel between Yale graduate Tom Wolfe's research-based book, The Kingdom of Speech (2016), and Yale Chinese language and literature professor Jing Tsu's recently published volume, Kingdom of Characters(2022).  Wolfe had a serious interest in linguistics, especially of the Chomskyan variety, the possibility of Neanderthal speech, the University of Pennsylvania, and other subjects that might surprise you.  Jing Tsu's new book caused quite a stir, though I was following her work long before it came out — particularly her call for more Chinese characters, her approbation of Lin Yutang's failed typewriter, and her fascination / obsession with emojis and emoticons, a topic that has been raging on Language Log in recent years and will continue to do so in coming weeks.
  • "Language is not script and script is not language" (1/23/22)
  • "How many more Chinese characters are needed?" (10/26/15)

[Thanks to Nick Kaldis]


  1. David Marjanović said,

    March 4, 2023 @ 9:09 am

    That's US Eastern time, GMT -5.

  2. AntC said,

    March 4, 2023 @ 9:26 pm

    (Not that I'm for a minute embracing the 'Language gene' idea, but …)

    What does it matter whether language is specifically a Homo Sapiens phenomenon vs Neanderthals onwards vs 'early hominins'? Not the last, according to Conde-Valverde.

    It perhaps needed a few genes: vocal tract, hearing tract (if that's the word), brain function (something).

    As per Wolfe contra Chomsky, we need to get our hands dirty with actual fossils to nail down the precise evolutionary point.

    (I'm not quite getting Wolfe's drift in mentioning "ordinary flycatchers in Darwin's day", as if Darwin wasn't a (ordinary) flycatcher — he very much earned respect by getting his hands dirty/five years away from home on The Beagle/studying finches' beaks. Very much more respect than Chomsky has ever earned.)

    (mostly unremittingly anti-Wolfe comments Aww you should always read Wolfe with tongue firmly in cheek. Somebody needed to deflate Chomsky's arrogance and pernicious academic malpractices — and do so bigly, eliding the petty squabbles. I used to enjoy Geoff Pullum's takedowns. Wolfe could perhaps reach a wider/not-so-academic audience.)

  3. DJL said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 2:42 am

    Pernicious academic malpractices? That will certainly do you for libel here in the UK. Anyway, let’s hear it, give us some examples.

  4. Peter Grubtal said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 3:23 am

    "Pernicious academic malpractices":-

    I'm sorry, this is paywalled:


    Am I allowed to quote from it (I have a copy)?

  5. DJL said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 4:52 am

    I know the article, and I know Pullum’s work well. It is, to say the least, a very tendentious take on things, and in any case it contains no actual examples of malpractice, only rather general descriptions of what Chomsky is claimed to usually do to opponents, with yet more general descriptions of what happened to this or that linguist as a result. Academic malpractice is a serious accusation, not something to say lightly because you don’t like how someone behaves in academia (and outside of it).

  6. AntC said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 5:47 am

    Anyway, let’s hear it, give us some examples.

    Ah, @DJL again. I fear we're only going to agree to disagree again. I'm merely passing on something I came across during our exploration of 'Poverty of Stimulus'. I'm glad to be able to use it, because it was a bit incendiary for that topic.

    … the two strands of Chomsky's work manifest on the contrary the same key properties: a deep disregard of, and contempt for, the truth, a monumental disdain for standards of inquiry, 1 a relentless strain of self-promotion, notable descents into incoherence 2 and a penchant for verbally abusing those who disagree with him. 3 There is also visible similarity in the way ideas are disseminated: often off the cuff, independently unsupported remarks in interviews and lectures or anecdotal comments as part of articles, etc. 4 This mode of promulgation shares nothing with understood requirements for historical or social research, still less with those of a science. …
    [I'm quoting only a tiny fraction; those numbers are refs A Corrupted Linguistics, Levine+Postal 2004]

    The rules (for example about English passive) that every child learns allegedly without sufficient stimulus, turn out to be not rules at all — or more exception than rule. And Chomsky knew that already even when he published 'Syntactic Structures'. Not only had he found counter-examples in his own (unpublished/published much later) work, Ross had pointed them out in a MIT PhD dissertation that Chomsky supervised.

  7. AntC said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 6:27 am

    … oh, also from another recent debate (I think in another place)

    In many recent (and some not so recent) publications Noam Chomsky makes an appeal to Galilean science and claims the Galilean framework justifies his own approach to scientific inquiry (e.g., Chomsky, 2002, 2009, 2010, 2012). Allegedly, this approach has a distinguished scientific and philosophical tradition. … In this blog post I argue that this approach should be rejected because it rests on a superficial and incorrect interpretation of Galileo’s work, has been rejected already by Rene Descartes, and is contrary to established scientific practice.
    [How Galilean is the 'Galilean Method'? Behme, 2016 ]

    That's the sort of academic/scientific practice I'm attaching mal- to.

    (And with apologies to Prof Mair for this thread getting derailed. Although there's something very Wolfean about it.)

  8. DJL said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 7:03 am

    We didn't agree to disagree last time. I simply said there was no major theory of language acquisition out there that claimed repetition was key to the process of learning the syntax of a language, let alone one that centred on doting grandparents repeating ad nauseam some structure of language to a child (your example), and you had no examples of anything of the sort.

    On the first message on Chomsky's malpractice; again, this offers no actual examples but only rather general remarks of alleged misbehaviour from Chomsky. Give actual examples of malpractice, and forget about supposedly bad behaviour.

    I wouldn't quote Behme on anything to do with the scientific method (or linguistics, or philosophy or anything, actually), but even if she was right and Chomsky didn't follow standard scientific practice, nothing follows about 'academic malpractice', just bad science – two different things.

    And how about better sources? God forbid anyone points out that Pullum, Behme, and Postal are hardly biased commentators of Chomsky's – all I have ever seen from them over the years is a lot of mirepresentation and tendentiousness, and basically an axe to grind (for personal reasons in at least two cases, or so I hear).

  9. AntC said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 7:52 am

    a lot of mirepresentation and tendentiousness

    seems to me to characterise Chomsky — and indeed your opening paragraph here: very Chomskyan debating tactics. We have a surfeit of "biased commentators" — the last one you fed me The theoretical framework used is the generative theory of Universal Grammar — or for you does 'not biased' mean indoctrinated with UG?

    for personal reasons seems close to doing _you_ for libel. I know nothing of personal animosities: I go by the published words only.

    I think we should stop usurping Prof Mair's thread and disagree again.

  10. DJL said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 8:34 am

    Put the rhetoric aside, along with the attempt to dismiss me as a Chomskyan, and give us examples of actual academic malpractice by Chomsky so we can evaluate them.

    Or better yet, put your pen where your mouth is and write to MIT or the University of Arizona to tell them that there are grounds to believe that Chomsky is in breach of academic standards. If anyone is guilty of academic malpractice, they should certainly be punished.

    Seriously, how can anyone make such wild accusations so lightly?

  11. Jonathan Smith said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 11:26 am

    Re: the post
    I guess this means before long we will be hearing about proto-Neanderthalish substrate in proto-World or sth…

    Re: explicit accusations of academic impropriety by Chomsky in "A Corrupted Linguistics," etc.

    Cases of this kind begin with erroneous construals on which oneself a.k.a. the ego is inextricably linked to a "standard model" issued and reissued iteratively and conceptualized as representative of the field vis-a-vis the world as opposed to of some particular view vis-a-vis the field.

    This entails that the specific claims and contents of the "standard model" in question can shift over time unproblematically ("semantic drift" :P); indeed, the nature of this construal allows the ego-model to digest the views of others without seeming to "credit" them and to contradict earlier versions of itself, all without triggering the normal alarms — the task at hand transcends all of that, you see.

    Crucially, construals of this kind can only gain momentum given ENABLEMENT by others, especially by outsiders to the field/subfield in question. So Chomsky is blameless — or perhaps, rather, only human, depending on one's views on Original Sin.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 4:07 pm

    …I think that by "academic malpractice" AntC means "egregiously bad science", bad enough it could get your doctorate revoked in some countries, while DJL means things like fraud or plagiarism.

  13. Jerry Packard said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 4:14 pm

    Having spent the last nine years of my life writing a book on the origins of language based on the evolution of brain anatomy – one that I don’t know whether I’ll finish or not – Wolfe’s book struck me as disappointing, as if he put his pen down right when he should have been shifting into third gear.

    Wolfe’s primary claim is that language is but an artifact, specifically a system of mnemonics, implemented by simply placing those mnemonics in the right order. That is not much of an advancement over Skinner’s S-R approach famously presented in his book _Verbal Behavior_.

    As a grad student in Linguistics at Cornell at a time when the younger faculty had just overturned the curriculum from Structuralist to Generativist, I felt that Wolfe should have given at least passing reference to Charles Hockett – a teacher and former advisor of mine – as Bloomfield’s heir apparent, but toppled by Chomsky in the famous linguistics wars of the mid-sixties.

    I will simply say that – while I have had my ears boxed plenty of times by Chomskian generativists during my academic career – the idea that humans are not preprogrammed for language is simply inconceivable to me, just as inconceivable as the notion that a duck is not preprogrammed for swimming or a bird is not preprogrammed for flying as they emerge from the egg.

  14. AntC said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 7:58 pm

    the idea that humans are not preprogrammed for language …

    A computer might arrive pre-programmed: it can process COBOL instructions but not Fortran, for example. Humans appear not to come ready for any specific language, but for all languages-in-general. So I think 'preprogrammed' is the wrong concept to be talking about; and is leading you into several mental blind alleys.

    Then are humans 'pre-programmed' for managing fire? Or for trigonometry? Or for celestial navigation? Or for polyrhythms or humming in harmony? If 'preprogrammed' is not the word you'd use, why not? And if it is, why are you using the same word as for language?

    Humans come with aptitude for a wide variety of cognitively-heavy skills. What is it about language makes its cognitive load different vs trigonometry or drawing/reading maps? Auditory tract adaptations are useful generally for detecting threats and prey, their direction and distance. Vocal tract adaptations might be useful for mimicking threats and prey to scare off or entice. Opposed thumbs are useful for … Walking upright is useful for … Why would humans evolve a specific gene for such a narrow purpose (language), when most evolution is more generally useful?

    Don't even try to answer the question of why language needs specific adaptations that don't come under cognition-in-general: that's exactly the sort of vacuous/endless armchair abstraction that Chomsky increasingly these days wants to divert into. If you're a Linguist, do go out and get your hands dirty observing actual language use — preferably recording a dying language. Chomsky should just retire already: he's done enough damage.

  15. AntC said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 9:40 pm

    the notion that a duck is not preprogrammed for swimming

    We can conduct experiments (rather cruelly) to examine that — in a way that would be too cruel to conduct on humans. Bring up a duck without access to swimmable water: does it go past some developmental stage such that it'll never learn to swim in later life? Bring it up without a mother who'll show it that swimming is a thing: will a duckling spontaneously jump into water?

    Will a duck that doesn't swim not develop webbed feet the same? Or the right muscles for swimming? Or not preen/oil its feathers to keep them waterproof?

    In what sense is a duck that doesn't swim still 'preprogrammed'?

    There are occasionally found humans that have never learned to walk upright; again there seems to be a developmental stage past which they'll never learn/don't get the joint development or motor control to balance. Do you still want to say they're 'preprogrammed' for bipedalism? Do you want to say there's a gene for bipedalism too? Bipedalism does entail mental/neurological learning: kids spend a long time lurching from sofa to coffee table before they get it right.

    Again, here, I'm challenging whether your 'preprogrammed' adds anything beyond 'can learn to …'/'has the physiological and mental aptitude to …'. Is there a language-specific aptitude vs general motor and cognitive aptitudes? — is another form of the same vacuous question.

    Is Chomsky's claim any different vs saying: humans (and possibly Neanderthals) have language; other species don't. It's metaphysics.

  16. Jerry Packard said,

    March 5, 2023 @ 11:38 pm

    The difference is that ducks, birds and humans will inevitably learn their respective skills reflexively and automatically given exposure to their environment. That won’t happen for managing fire, trigonometry or celestial navigation. Children deprived of their language-learning environment do eventually learn language – albeit deficted – once they are exposed. The same cannot be said for fire, trigonometry or navigation, which would need to be explicitly taught as cultural artifacts.

  17. AntC said,

    March 6, 2023 @ 2:02 am

    The same cannot be said for fire, trigonometry or navigation, …

    Unless those were handed down from higher beings, some human [**] must've figured those out somehow, and _then_ "explicitly taught as cultural artifacts". Likewise why couldn't a human have figured out an extra use for the already-present vocal-auditory pathway? And _then_ …

    [**] In fact the evidence is plenty of humans figured them out independently in different places.

    Children deprived of their language-learning environment do eventually learn language …

    Again this would be too cruel of an experiment, but would a community of children deprived of any language contact through to adulthood spontaneously 'invent' language? Would it count as a language with syntax, or would it only reach the fixed-form utterances humans can teach chimpanzees?

  18. jonathan silk said,

    March 6, 2023 @ 5:57 am

    Nothing to do with the heated discussion above:

    "a similar oral communication system as modern humans. "

    is this acceptable English?

    It seems that it should mean "an oral communication system similar to that which modern humans possess", but can it mean this?

    I'm curious and LL seems a good place to ask this.

  19. Jerry Packard said,

    March 6, 2023 @ 6:53 am

    I think you are correct that strictly speaking it is not acceptable, but it is grammatical, and everyone knows what it is intended to mean. No?

  20. Jerry Packard said,

    March 6, 2023 @ 7:00 am

    “Would a community of children deprived of any language contact through to adulthood spontaneously 'invent' language? “

    I believe they would.

    “Would it count as a language with syntax, or would it only reach the fixed-form utterances humans can teach chimpanzees?”

    I believe it would, and I believe it would far exceed what chimps can do.

  21. DJL said,

    March 6, 2023 @ 8:11 am

    Nicaraguan sign language is the standard case of an "invented" language that has much the same properties as other natural languages.

  22. David Marjanović said,

    March 6, 2023 @ 5:21 pm

    Why are there only 14 people, myself included, in the Zoom session? :-)

  23. David Marjanović said,

    March 6, 2023 @ 7:21 pm

    The presentation is over. Summary:

    – The anatomy of the inner & middle ear correlates to how well sounds at different frequencies can be perceived – and enough of this anatomy fossilizes that it can be studied in fossil skulls by µCT-scanning.
    – Chimpanzees don't hear higher frequencies well. Their range of best acoustic sensitivity is from about 500 to about 3000 Hz (with a peak at 1000 and a second peak higher up, making a W-shaped profile).
    – Ours is from something like 800 to 4500 Hz, so both wider and shifted to higher frequencies.
    – What's in that higher range is consonants. It's what you lose when you have hearing loss in old age.
    – The one Australopithecus skull that's been scanned had a bandwidth of best acoustic sensitivity only 2% wider than a chimpanzee's (ours is 32% wider), but shifted to somewhat higher frequencies: 700 to 3300 Hz perhaps. (I'm trying to read these off a graphic representation in a screenshot I made.)
    – "Homo antecessor from Sima de los Huesos had 14% more than a chimp, from some 700 to some 4100 Hz.
    – Neandert"h"al hearing was entirely within the modern range of variation. Conclusion: probably spoke what we'd immediately recognize as human languages today.

  24. David Marjanović said,

    March 6, 2023 @ 7:29 pm

    is this acceptable English?

    It's interference from Standard Average European. :-)

    Again this would be too cruel of an experiment, but would a community of children deprived of any language contact through to adulthood spontaneously 'invent' language?

    Nicaraguan Sign Language comes close to that, though it has turned out that the "deprived of any language contact" part was only mostly true.

    "Homo antecessor

    I forgot the closing quotation mark there. I meant to make a rather irrelevant point about biological nomenclature and the 150 species concepts.

  25. AntC said,

    March 6, 2023 @ 9:02 pm

    everyone knows what it is intended to mean. No?

    I certainly did, and got the sense/didn't notice anything odd until @jonathan raised it.

    "a similar oral communication system to modern humans. " (r/as/to/) would be wrong: nobody's suggesting humans are like/are only communication systems.

    "… similar to that which modern humans possess" but can it mean this?

    Seems a reasonable gloss. Your "humans possess" echoes the "that Neanderthals had".

    Why couldn't it mean this? [BrE L1 speaker here, but familiar with so many varieties of non-Br E, I'd be an unreliable source as to what's 'proper'.]

  26. AntC said,

    March 6, 2023 @ 9:11 pm

    @DM Why are there only 14 people … in the Zoom session?

    Thank you David for the excellent summary.

    Conclusion: [Neanderthals] probably spoke what we'd immediately recognize as human languages today.

    That would be my only take-away. And we already had plenty enough evidence for it. (See Qi at 'How would you spot a Neanderthal on the bus?')

    That's why I didn't bother watching.

  27. AntC said,

    March 7, 2023 @ 12:29 am

    – Ours [humans' hearing range] is from something like 800 to 4500 Hz, so both wider and shifted to higher frequencies.
    – What's in that higher range is consonants. It's what you lose when you have hearing loss in old age.

    Famously dogs, bats and cetaceans, but plenty of other species have hearing ranges that go higher than humans. What's in those upper registers?

    Are dogs busily communicating in overtones, whilst dumb (deaf) humans can hear only the fundamentals?

  28. David Marjanović said,

    March 7, 2023 @ 8:19 am

    That's why I didn't bother watching.

    Oh, that's too bad. Watching the methods, and the conclusions about H. antecessor and whichever Australopithecus it was, was worth it.

    Famously dogs, bats and cetaceans, but plenty of other species have hearing ranges that go higher than humans. What's in those upper registers?

    No, it's not our entire hearing range, it's our range of highest sensitivity. We can hear sounds well below 800 Hz and well above 4500 Hz if only they're loud enough.

    Dogs might be hearing rats squeak (rats giggle in ultrasound if you tickle them), and I'm under the impression that dogs' yelping sounds often start above my hearing range.

    Bats and cetaceans use ultrasound for echolocation.

  29. Jonathan Smith said,

    March 8, 2023 @ 3:27 pm

    FWIW IMO the idea that language might fall out of general cognition in humans is a common reactionary position wrt Chomsky, etc., but hardly a necessary one. The question is whether / to what extent it is possible at this stage to say much about such a "language faculty" which is not vacuous, to use AntC's term. Decades of slow but steady progress along the path opened by Chomsky has taken us ever… closer… to the… ultimate… answer…which is apparently….. no.

    Chomsky et. al. on ChatGPT if anyone is interested; rehash of strawman (I hope?) arguments concerning capacities of machine-learning-type "AI"

  30. AntC said,

    March 8, 2023 @ 11:00 pm

    Bees create cultural buzz learning from each other[The Times, paywalled] A more sober/sciency report. [Queen Mary University, London]

    We already knew bees have symbolic communication in their 'dances' representing food sources.

    Previously: Goal! Bees can learn ball skills from watching each other, study finds[The Guardian, 2017]

    That language is specific to the vocal/auditory tracts (or that humans have way bigger brains than bees) doesn't make symbolic communication uniquely human, to my mind.

  31. JPL said,

    March 10, 2023 @ 12:47 am

    It looks like (from what was presented in this post and without engaging the literature on this question) what the research team was entitled to conclude from their researches was that the anatomical structure of the Neandertal inner and middle ear was such that it would allow for the possibility of effective perception of human speech sounds. Based on that evidence the assertion that Neandertals "probably spoke what we would immediately recognize as human languages today" would seem to go beyond what that evidence would logically support. What is not yet established is the causal dependency relation between those anatomical features and the phenomenon of human speech, in particular the directionality of the dependency. Did speech begin at a certain point because now humans had the capacity to respond with effective discrimination to a favourable range of sounds, whereas they hadn't before, or did speech begin with the previous level of perception and then improve in effectiveness over time because the anatomical features evolved? (I'm not making the Lamarckian suggestion that the anatomy evolved in direct response to the "need" for effective perception of speech sounds.) A crucial step in the development of language is the appearance of the "endogenic signifier", which, in contrast to the "exogenic signifiers" of perception of the world, allow for the construction of categories directed from within by the human subjects. It would seem that this development could still happen with signifiers (speech sounds) that were less than optimal, (So, if you like the latter possibility, I guess you could say that it is more likely that Neandertals had language of some sort, but maybe not as smooth as it is today.)

  32. Peter Grubtal said,

    March 11, 2023 @ 3:59 am


    As far as I can tell, nobody is claiming that it's been proven up to the hilt that Neanderthals had language like us, and in fact you quote yourself David M's summary that they "probably spoke what we would immediately recognize as human languages today".

    The point is then, how strong is that probability? Here, the question arises: are the changes to ear anatomy adaptive, or the result à la Gould of genetic drift or a spandrel? These changes must have involved more than one gene, in which case, is it likely that they are purely random? And if adaptive, adaptive to what, the noises of the forest, or to enabling human speech?

    Unless you espouse some big-bang theory of the origin of language, à la Chomsky et al., which I find just about as implausible as it gets, deep origins would suggest as well that Neanderthals were not far off modern levels of competence in this department.

  33. David Marjanović said,

    March 11, 2023 @ 12:34 pm

    Did speech begin at a certain point because now humans had the capacity to respond with effective discrimination to a favourable range of sounds, whereas they hadn't before, or did speech begin with the previous level of perception and then improve in effectiveness over time because the anatomical features evolved?

    The latter is suggested by the fact that the change in the optimal hearing range was so gradual.

    (Seriously, why were there only 14 people in the Zoom session?)

    Here, the question arises: are the changes to ear anatomy adaptive, or the result à la Gould of genetic drift or a spandrel?

    The fact that the trend lasted for so long and was, given the four data points we have, linear strongly suggests selection was involved.

  34. JPL said,

    March 11, 2023 @ 4:11 pm

    @David Marjanovic:

    That's what I thought the picture would be. Thanks for the update. So the second causal dependency scenario is probably correct, and the title of the OP above could be expressed more accurately as "Using [fossil] evidence from anatomy of the ear to date the origins of language". (My puzzlement at that title is what made me read the post. With the first scenario, if you have evidence of the required ear anatomy at some definite point, you couldn't be sure (without other kinds of evidence) that at that point the species had language (yet). The OP title made it look like the causal dependency pathway had ear anatomy earlier than the appearance of language, whereas the anatomy probably came along later. (To put it in another way, it suggests a causal explanation of the origin of language that has the origin of language depending upon the anatomical development, or more crudely, that language had its origins in that anatomical step.) I suppose you could have said, "Anatomical aspects of the origins of language", and I wouldn't have been driven to read the post.) And BTW, the researcher's own title ("Sounds of the past") seems weirdly off-center, as they seem to focus on the physical anatomical facts, rather than the kind of speech sounds that would have been in the air back then. Only 14 people! Well, I'm glad you paid attention.

  35. Jerry Packard said,

    March 12, 2023 @ 7:56 am

    14 people is not bad, especially when you consider that there was a whole roomful of students, about 30 by my count, that the lecture was intended for in the first place.

  36. AntC said,

    March 13, 2023 @ 6:18 am

    14 people is not bad

    For comparison, David Bohm's lecture attracted "only about 20 people" [at ~4:50] on a practicably feasible variant of the EPR thought experiment, that lead to 'Bell's Theorem/Inequality" that lead to last year's Nobel on Quantum entanglement.

  37. JPL said,

    March 13, 2023 @ 7:01 pm


    So Dr. Conde-Valverde is in good company. "Wholeness and the implicate order" is definitely a great book to read: rich discussion clearly expressed at the highest level from a non-conventional mind, and you can get it probably for about five bucks by now. For some reason conventional scientific thinking, in physics as well as linguistics, has always been atomistic (including Chomsky's MInimalism), but Bohm looks at the world from the opposite p.o.v. In a causal analysis of an empirical phenomenon, pursuing the implication relation in the inverse direction is a fruitful heuristic. Applied to the "conceptual " tools of empirical investigation, this allows you to discover the implicit fundamental logical principles upon which your hypothesis ultimately depends for its validity. (Trying to do this is what I call (in my private language) "Bohm's problem".) Odd diversion here, but I shall look at that whole video; thanks for the suggestion.

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