29 March 2007

Ug have perfect pitch!

Writing in "Compose" rather than "Edit Html" makes a huge difference. So you know.

Early hominids!! I really enjoyed reading these articles (Wikipedia less so); I may have to dig up the entire book sometime. However, I wasn't really clear on how this really addresses religion, except in that Neanderthals did not apparently have any sort of religion, since they lacked the capability for abstract thought and piecewise idea formulation.

A few things I thought of while reading:

The speculation that early humans were responsible for the extinction of the Neanderthals really amuses me. The N. seem to have copied the symbolism that the humans brought with them from Africa, but the humans killed them! (maybe). This volatile human characteristic continues, I think, today. Just think of the Crusades or really any war in recorded history. Humans go someplace and want to take over. In contrast (according to the book), N. had a stable, functional society, with little or no need for massive violent expansion. It seems like our basic drives haven't changed so much as we'd like to think. It also makes me wonder what in the evolutionary track of humans caused this urge to expand and conquer, since it obviously developed after the evolutionary tree split into N. and Homo sapiens. Or it could have come about as a result of the interaction. Maybe it was a fear of something just similar enough to be creepy. Or maybe it arose from competition for resources, for which the humans were more capable of procuring through various means.

The biology of Neanderthals is also fascinating to me. The article mentioned that N. had breathing control similar to that of modern humans, but the larynx position and tongue control were more like that of modern chimps. This reminded me of an amazing true story (gleaned from Sagan's excellent book The Dragons of Eden) of an infant chimpanzee raised as a brother to a human infant for something like a year (this happened before such things were considered cruel). At the end of the experimental period, the human had learned to speak to the extent that is normal for a child that age. What really surprised me was that the chimp had also learned to speak English! Admittedly, though, he could only say three words (mama, papa, and cup), and then with immense difficulty. But still, that's really cool. This suggests to me that N. were likely also capable of these sorts of things, but never tried speech specifically. (This isn't strictly related, but the Sagan book also talks extensively about chimps' ability to use symbolic language [mostly nonverbal American Sign Language] and suggests that they have their own forms of abstract language, since one chimp was observed to invent a nasty name to call her trainer, which is a metaphor and definitely abstract!)

The mention of the musical savant at the end of the reading first gave me a little moment of glee when it made me think of a recent episode of House which guest-starred Dave Matthews. After that had passed I reflected on the truth of the point the author made: Once we attach symbolic meaning to a sound, we start to lose sensitivity to the nuances of the sound itself. Neanderthal language was probably much richer emotionally, then, since they were more attuned to the specifics of the sound. Anyone who's really enjoyed a great symphony can understand how "meaningless" sound can arouse extremely powerful, but vague, emotions (Beethoven's 9th comes to mind as a common example). I even sometimes have similar experiences with jazz or rock, even things like Guns 'n Roses or the Goo Goo Dolls, when I stop listening to the words. With a bit of practice, this almost becomes second nature, and I personally like it a lot. Try it sometime.


evolver said...

I don't think there can be much question that Neanderthals had language. I've never heard what you've reported - that Neanderthals had chimp-like tongue construction.

Quite the contrary, Neanderthals had a hypoglossal canal (the opening for the nerves that control speech related breathing and tongue motor skills) that was essentially modern. They also had a hyoid bone that was modern, which is an expensive adaptation, since it means any creature so configured cannot breathe and drink at the same time. Neanderthals would not have a modern hyoid unless strong evolutionary pressures positioned them to speak.

Then there's the material evidence. 70,000 years ago, in the Harz mountains, a Neanderthal group made a tar for fastening stone tips to wooden hafts of spears. To do this, they had to heat the birch pitch to about 3-400 degrees, and they had to provide the sap with an anaerobic environment to prevent the sap from just burning.

This is a level of technological sophistication unreachable without something approaching modern speech. As such, it is almost inconceivable to think, if someone were to clone a Neanderthal today, you couldn't have a fairly normal conversation with him or her.

Sarah M said...

Interesting that you stumbled across this... I don't know about the things you mentioned, this was just a response to a reading for class, and that's all we were supposed to base it on.

Interesting points, though, thanks!