FOXP2 is thought to be a language gene. It is highly conserved in most mammals but in humans there are two unique mutations in the protein caused by nucleotide substitutions at positions 911 and 977 of exon 7. It is thought to be a language gene because humans who have one FOXP2 copy have speech impediments and deficiencies in orofacial movement.
Now with all the progress in sequencing the genome of Neandertals, it seems like some anthropologists and biologists from Max Planck and institutions in France and Spain got curious about finding out the whether or not Neandertals have the same two mutuations as modern humans do in their FOXP2 gene.
Their work has been published today, in Current Biology under the following title, “The Derived FOXP2 Variant of Modern Humans Was Shared with Neandertals.” Thanks to one of our readers, Hugo, who sent me this paper I’ve had a chance to read this outstanding paper. Now, if you’ve been keeping track of the Neandertal genome project, I know what you’re thinking, “What about the inconsistencies with Neandertal sequences!?!”
Well the authors, Johannes Krause and team, were very careful about this from the beginning. They made sure the two bones from El Sidrón cave in Asturias were extracted under sterile condition. They also amplified the FOXP2 gene using Neandertal specific primers. That was done so that little to no modern human genes shoulda been targeted for amplification.
After a whole lot of cycles, sequencing, and alignment, the team found out that the Neandertals carried FOXP2 that was identical to that of present-day humans in the only two positions that differ between human and chimpanzee. Speicifcally, at position 911 on exon 7 of the Neandertal FOXP2, threonine is swapped for aspartic acid just like humans and also at position 977 of the Neandertal FOXP2, arginine replaces serine… just like in humans. Sending the samples to other lab to reproduce the experiments yielded the same results.
While the authors are a bit cautious, saying that the whole genome of the Neandertal will provide much more resolution in comparing FOXP2 genes, I do want to point out that this new finding messes up the results of Pääbo, who showed that the mutations in FOXP2 in modern humans were very recent, maybe less than 200,000 years ago in 2002. The authors kinda sorta challenge Pääbo’s conclusion,
“Leaving out the unlikely scenario of gene flow [between the two lineages], this establishes that these changes were present in the common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals. The date of the emergence of these genetic changes therefore must be older than that estimated with only extant human diversity data, thus demonstrating the utility of direct evidence from Neandertal DNA sequences for understanding recent modern human evolution.”
So the common ancestor of Neandertals had this unique allele of FOXP2. Does that mean they had language capabilities? Does this mean Neandertals had language capabilities… I’d sure hope so because at this point in human evolution, erectines like Neandertals and their culture were widespread. Their ability to communicate in some higher form or another was crucial for their ubiquity in Europe and Asia.