Neandertals have the same mutations in FOXP2, the language gene, as modern humans

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.

29 thoughts on “Neandertals have the same mutations in FOXP2, the language gene, as modern humans

  1. It comes as no surprise to me. After all we can be sure that the capacity for language involved a heap of genetic changes involving physiology and instinctive behaviour. The capacity would not have appeared suddenly overnight in just a small group of humans. I have assumed for many years that some capability for speech extends a long way back.

  2. I agree with Terry, in that I think it likely people have been talking to one another since the Lower Palaeolithic, and there seems no compelling reason why only anatomically modern humans could have acquired speech – I suppose we’ll never know whether there were hundreds (or thousands) of micro-languages in use, or whether there were common words used across wide geographical areas over long periods of time.

  3. Terry, the supplemental material says the bones were calibrated to be 43,129 +/- 129 years old. More from the supplemental,

    “The bones 1253 and 1351c are fragments of long bones that came from mature individuals with Neandertal morphological features and that were deliberately fragmented, presumably to retrieve the bone marrow.

    FOXP2 and cannibalism.

  4. Thanks Kambiz. The reason I asked was to understand the reason for the comment, “Leaving out the unlikely scenario of gene flow [between the two lineages]”. But I see that since I asked John Hawks has also questioned this statement. As I understand it modern humans had made it to Canaan (or whatever else you prefer to call the region) by perhaps 90,000 years ago. Although Neanderthals eventually replaced them again surely introgression into Europe would have been quite possible after that time.

  5. Having FOXP2 in their cells doesn’t mean they had language (as we know it) and doesn’t even suggest it. All it means is that they were capable of it.

    I’ve been doing some thinking about the question of when language might have originated and I think I’ve found an interesting clue. I have no idea whether anyone else has ever considered this line of thinking, or whether there might be serious problems with it, so I’d appreciate it if any knowledgeable parties reading here would be so kind as to hop over to my blog, read what I have to say on this, and comment. The relevant post is here: http://music000001.blogspot.com/2007/10/98-did-pygmies-ever-have-language-of.html

  6. Victor. Interesting blog. I must confess a similar idea had occurred to me regarding Pygmy languages, or rather the lack of a shared origin for them. I concluded that communicating with their neighbours became more important to them than communicating with other Pygmy groups. Perhaps also Pygmy groups do not share a common origin. They evolved from several source groups. Anyone have genetic information regarding Pygmies? Most seem to share a single Y-chromosome group. How about mtDNA? By the way Victor I’m also a musician and music teacher by profession. Also done a unit in ethnomusicology, in Australia.

  7. Thanks for responding, Terry. If you have a background in music and ethno, as well as anthro, I think you’ll find quite a bit to interest you in my blog, so I hope you’ll keep reading. Most people in ethno seem to be afraid of me, because they see what I’m doing as a throwback to the “bad old days” of kulturkreise thinking — and are also shy of anything remotely “statistical.” And most in anthro lack the musical background to understand the sort of connections I think I’m finding. So I would appreciate any comments and also criticisms you might have.

    There’s an essay that might interest you, by a very interesting guy named Roger Blench, a sort of combination linguist, archaeologist and ethnomusicologist: “Are Pygmies an Ethnographic Fiction?” — http://www.rogerblench.info/Anthropology%20data/Pygmies%20an%20ethnographic%20fiction.pdf

    It’s an enjoyable read, but his thinking seems the product of the prevailing “revisionist” ideology, that’s questioning the legitimacy of “indigenous peoples” in all parts of the world. My reading of the genetic evidence (admittedly biased), is that yes indeed there IS considerable evidence of genetic connections, very old ones. It’s a bit confusing, because some of the reports have found strong connections among various western groups, but no clear connection with eastern pygmies, such as the Mbuti. The most recent evidence (which I am not at liberty to say much about at the moment) apparently does show such links. All the genetic evidence I’ve ever seen on any Pygmy group identifies at least some of their haplotypes as among the oldest found anywhere. Some groups have more Bantu admixture than others, though.

    As far as the musical evidence is concerned, there is IMO a very strong connection among almost all Pygmy groups in Africa — and Bushmen also. Blench should know better as he’s knowledgeable about African music, but chooses instead to — well, it’s a long story. Actually I”m working on a paper about all the confusion on Pygmy and Bushmen music now. Meanwhile, if you check some of the earlier posts on my blog, you’ll get a good sense of why I think the way on do on this.

  8. I am writing a story about a neandertal man 35000 years ago , and I am fascinated with the fact that one musical instrument was retreived on a burial site , dated carbon14 40000 years ago , so if music instrument … means singing , therefore means voice and by deduction a language is not it ? … Please answer me as this is a very important link for my research on my story … merci beaucoup ! jpj

  9. …from cyclops polyphemus/many voiced, to baxajaun,
    who shouted when wind came=ecaitz(baxque)=ecauitz(Nauatl),
    whose arrival was announced by belled sheep he guarded
    as Lord of the forest, to the anachronistic planting song the
    baxques preserved from him, we know neander prometheus
    as a mimic=mimati(N)=imati(N) of animal sounds(for hunting or pleasure), who cried out, and who sang.

  10. …let me add that the hyoid bone in neander developed
    against evolution, it put him/her at risk from choking as it drew near the gullet, but such was the joy in song, in worship of Tonatiuh/sun deity/Anthony=
    tonalli(N)=soul=tone/tune. from the very beginning, the most religious being to roam blue planet, s/he gave us medicine/shanidar flower burial4, promethean fire, solstice bear christ/iueli(N)=powerful, ochre
    burials=ocelix(N)=to reblossom/revive=oc(r)elix/celia(N), the one body of language known as Nauatl, began the venus star charts when wendy/venison was 1st venus
    jumping horizons, then is refined in the upper stone age, 45k-10k bc.s/he was an athlete=atleti/atletia(N)=to burn, consume=atle(N/negative=no fire, tletl(N)=
    fire reverential=t/l/red/t/l=t/let/l=letter, and writing, check out the old iberian alphabet, tle(N)=
    what/what thing? for a look at neander’s character,
    find the mati(N)=know, imati/oima(N)wordstring in,
    isbn 968-23-0573-x. the fallen angel was superior
    to us in many ways, not inferior. health was a problem
    so he had to be near his pharmacy=pamaca(N)=give a
    laxative, imati(N)=to be convalescing, which kept him
    local while homo sap sap traded around him, but freed many members of the clan for reflective tasks, his
    brain larger, and, i believe more activity on the
    surface, leading to the correct conclusion everything
    is connected, our planet thinks the same way. not
    the brain of homo sap sap, whose brain is for focus,
    more micro than macro, internal, self-involved, seeking its own comfort, not looking out in wonder,
    cynical, fantasy prone.

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