What language the Mal’ta boy spoke

What song the sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.

Thomas Browne. Urn burial

24 kya. In the mid-twentieth century, Soviet archeologists excavated a site at Mal’ta near Lake Baikal that included the remains of of a 3-4 year old boy. Recent ancient DNA tests on the boy are one piece of evidence that is shaking up our understanding of how populations differentiated once Homo sapiens left Africa. (News story here.) It now looks like, back in the day, there was a widespread ancient population – people have been calling them Ancestral North Eurasians or ANE – that was already clearly differentiated from East Asians, and from populations in Southwest Asia. This population would eventually make a significant contribution to the ancestry of both American Indians and Europeans. American Indians seem to get most of their ancestry from a population ancestral to modern East Asians, but a large minority (about 25%) from ANE. And we’ll see when we get to Indo-European origins and the Indo-European expansion that ANE is a significant factor there as well.

These genetic findings dovetail neatly with work on historical linguistics by Joseph Greenberg. In Indo-European and its closest relatives: The Eurasiatic language family, Greenberg argued for a Eurasiatic language family, ancestral to more generally accepted families including Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Japanese-Korean-Ainu, Gilyak, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, and Eskimo-Aleut. He argued that the closest relative of this macrofamily was another macrofamily, dubbed “Amerind,” embracing most American Indian languages.

Greenberg’s proposal has not met with universal acceptance. One linguist (Don Ringe, a heavyweight in Indo-European studies) wrote “One is seldom asked to review a book that contains nothing of value, but that is unfortunately true of this volume.” The gold standard for historical linguists is being able to reconstruct an ancestral language, and the systematic sound changes leading to its descendants. Instead of this, Greenberg could only offer a mass of suggestive similarities. But the close correspondence between Greenberg’s farflung Eurasiatic family (and its Amerind sister) and the recent genetic results suggest that he was onto something. Either that, or he made a surprisingly lucky guess.

We’ll see another remarkable fit between alleged distant language affinities (Melanesia and southern South America) and recent genetic results on September 7, when we get to the earliest human settlement of the Americas .


28 kya. The Venus of Willendorf, from Austria, is one of a number of “Venus figurines” from the European Upper Paleolithic.


The statuette is realistic, except for the attenuated/missing hands and feet, and the absence of facial features. Obviously she’s nude, and fat. But not entirely unclothed. The pattern on her head is not just an abstract design, but carefully depicted piece of headgear.


It took a female archeologist, Olga Soffer, to notice that this figurine represents not just a naked woman, but a fashion statement.  Here’s a quotation:

A close examination of this specimen shows a spirally or radially hand‐woven item which may be initiated by a knotted center in the manner of some kinds of coiled baskets. The technique represented is a two‐element structure in which an apparently flexible, horizontal foundation element or warp is vertically wrapped with stem stitches. The foundation element is clearly visible between the stitches, some of which are plain while others are countered. Work direction is right to left, and at least seven circuits encircle the head, with two extra half‐circuits over the nape of the neck. The selvage, as depicted over the forehead, simply has the wrapping element encircling the final horizontal warp circuit. Several areas on the body of the cap appear to illustrate splices, where new material has been added.

Many other Venus figurines are also nude but adorned – with headgear, or with bands and belts, or with skirts, sometimes worn below the buttocks. These figures tell us something about the complexity of textile technology long ago. What more is going on – whether we’re seeing a representation of mythology, of a beauty pageant, or an initiation rite, or all of the above – is a mystery.

Talk Like a Neanderthal Day

Like “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” but more scientific!

Human language is probably more than One Weird Trick. It’s multiple weird tricks. We’ve already posted about phonemes, and how they can be strung together to make words. And then words are strung together to make phrases and sentences: but there are a multiple weird tricks here as well. Consider this quotation from some language researchers:

Every human language sentence is composed of two layers of meaning: a lexical structure that contains the lexical meaning, and an expression structure that is composed of function elements that give shape to the expression. In the question, Did John eat pizza?, the lexical layer is composed of the words John, eat, pizza … The sentence also contains did, which has two functions: it marks tense, and by occurring at the head of the sentence, it also signifies a question. (Miyagawa et. al.)

The lexical level of language includes content words: nouns, most verbs, adjectives. The expressive level contains functional words (auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, articles, and so on), as well as tenses and other inflections, and even functional operations like moving around the parts of a phrase. We can think of a sentence like a piece of carpentry, a bookshelf, say. A typical bookshelf will consist of the parts that hold things up (shelves, sides, etc., analogous to lexical structure), and parts that fasten these parts together (dowels, screws, bolts, nuts, nails, glue, etc., analogous to expressive structure).
But there are other ways to build furniture. For example, here’s a desk with no fasteners. Instead, the load bearing parts have slots and tabs that fit together. This is simpler but less flexible than having boards and fasteners that you can put together however you see fit.

The analogy with language would be a protolanguage with nothing but content words – nouns, verbs, and adjectives, say – and lexical structure. The analogy works because verbs come with built in slots that nouns can fit into, even without any extra “fasteners” to hold them together. Linguists call this the “argument structure” of a verb. (Think about functions and their arguments if you’re into math or computer science.) For example fear and frighten are both transitive verbs, but they have different argument structures

  • Carg fear thunder.
  • Thunder frighten Carg.

In one case the experiencer goes in the subject slot, and the agent goes in the direct object slot. In the other case it’s the reverse. Some verbs, like burn, have more than one argument structure.

  • Carg burn meat.
  • Meat burn.

English verbs have some tens of different argument structures. (Note that I haven’t put any tense on the verbs. That would be part of expressive structure, which we’re leaving off here.)

So a protolanguage, one step along the way to a full blown language, could consist of a bunch of verbs and their argument structures, with nouns slotted in the appropriate spaces as needed, and adjectives added to convey additional information. Is this what Neanderthal language was like? We don’t know yet, but as we figure out the genetics of language, we’ll find out. For now though, let’s make today – just about the last day on Logarithmic History that Neanderthals are around – “Talk Like a Neanderthal Day.”

Carg publish blogpost now. Next Carg get Mother brunch. Carg and Mother eat brunch. Goodbye!

The Inheritors

40 kya. “The Inheritors” is a novel by William Golding about the encounter between Neanderthals and modern humans. Like “Lord of the Flies,” it is written with a mid-twentieth century awareness that advanced societies don’t leave behind the potential for cruelty. The novel isn’t all that scientifically accurate, though: Golding’s early humans have bows and arrows, for example.

Neanderthal 1, the first Neanderthal fossil recognized as probably belonging to another species, was discovered in the Neander Thal (=Neander Valley) in 1856. He is close in time to the last Neanderthals: the most recent review of the evidence finds that Neanderthals disappear as a distinct group around 40 thousand years ago. They were almost certainly outcompeted by Homo sapiens who had arrived in Europe earlier. There was probably some kind of coexistence between Neanderthals and H. sapiens over many thousands of years. Regional cultures from this period, like the Châtelperronian, may represent Neanderthals copying the Aurignacian culture of incoming H. sapiens. The final blow may have come between 39 and 38 thousand years ago, when a “Heinrich event” sent cascades of icebergs into the North Atlantic, drastically chilling Europe. Homo sapiens recovered from the cold spell; Neanderthals did not.

Just last year we have learned that one of the earliest modern human fossils from Europe, Oase 1, from Romania (40 kya), has substantially more Neanderthal DNA, 6-9%, than living Europeans. Furthermore, this DNA comes in the form of long stretches of chromosomes, rather than little bits broken up by millennia of recombination, showing that his Neanderthal ancestors go back just a few generations, maybe to some great-great-great-grandparents. We’ve also learned from isotopic evidence that Oase 1 got the proteins in his diet from a broad array of sources, including freshwater fish. Neanderthals, by contrast, look like top predators, gaining nearly all their protein from large herbivores.

And here is some of the art produced by Homo sapiens 40 thousand years ago. lionman The lion man from Hohlenstein-Fels

And the earliest known cave paintings, from Sulawesi, Indonesia. indonesiancaveart


We have been treating Neanderthals here as a species, Homo neanderthalensis, distinct from our own species, Homo sapiens. Some researchers elect to call Neanderthals a subspecies, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, and classify modern humans as another subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens.

The line between subspecies and species is not clear cut, nor – given the way evolution works – should we expect it to be. Very recent work on ancient DNA recovered from fossils has shown just how complicated the subject is. The spectacular finding of the last few years is that modern humans are hybrids, getting most of their ancestry from a single founding population (we can call them Homo sapiens), but incorporating limited ancestry from close relatives. Thus human beings outside Africa have 1-4% Neanderthal DNA. So it looks as if early in the course of expansion(s) out of Africa, there was a limited amount of interbreeding with Neanderthals.* And not just with Neanderthals. Populations in Melanesia get an additional 4-6% of their DNA from a widespread East/Southeast Asian population known as Denisovans, while some African groups have ancestry from non-sapiens populations in Africa. (The fossil record for Denisovans is a lot sparser than for Neanderthals, and it’s even sparser for African non-sapiens.)

This isn’t reason enough to put Neanderthals and sapiens in a single species: plenty of species occasionally hybridize with related species. And in fact the DNA evidence implies that sapiens and Neanderthals were moving toward being reproductively isolated. Specifically, we find that a lot of Neanderthal genes related to testis development and male fertility are underrepresented (i.e. at a lot less than 1-4% frequency) in modern humans. The likely explanation is that those genes didn’t work well against a H. sapiens genetic background. In other words, if you were mixed sapiens/Neanderthal man, you probably had fertility problems, albeit not to the point of complete sterility.

There is an extensive older literature in physical anthropology on “race crossing.” Researchers were concerned with whether people with mixed racial ancestry might have reduced fitness as a result of combining incompatible genes. This literature is reviewed at book length here. The overwhelming evidence is that “race crossing” has no harmful biological consequences (in contrast to close inbreeding, which is a bad idea: wait until we get to the Habsburgs on November 9). The new data from Neanderthal DNA puts this in perspective. Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis evolved separately for the better part of a million years, and were some way on the path to reproductive isolation. By contrast, different populations (“races”) within Homo sapiens have only been evolving separately for 100 thousand years or less. This has been enough time to evolve major differences in traits like skin color and hair form, but not to create appreciable biological barriers to interbreeding.

And here’s a link covering some recent research suggesting that across a wide range of organisms it takes a surprisingly clock-like average of two million years separation to split one species into two.

* Hence, my Neanderthal name is Carg, and my website is cargshome.

Australian Megafauna and the Sixth Great Extinction

The Earth has been through a number of mass extinctions. On Logarithmic History, we covered the five greatest mass extinctions during the month of March, and into early April.

For all these extinctions, the most likely cause is some kind physical catastrophe: either drastic changes in the chemistry of oceans and atmosphere, or extraterrestrial events, like asteroid strikes or, just possibly, gamma ray bursts.

Competition with other organisms is another major cause of extinctions. Usually this is just part of a steady background level of extinction. But occasionally competition – and extinction rates – increase dramatically, as during the Great American Interchange five million years ago, when South American animals were swamped by North American invaders with the establishment of the Isthmus of Panama.

Earth now seems to be going through another episode of mass extinction, a Sixth Extinction. This time the cause is very different: a single species, Homo sapiens, is playing an overwhelming role. Although the pace of extinction has accelerated over the last few centuries, you can make a case that the sixth extinction began a long time ago, with the expansion of modern humans out of Africa. Australia in particular sees the disappearance of a unique fauna that evolved over more than a hundred millions of years of isolation. This fauna included monster wombats, giant kangaroos, huge flightless birds, and a marsupial version of a lion.

All of these – all land mammals, reptiles, and birds with mass of more than 200 pounds – seem to have gone extinct about 46,000 years ago, when humans first crossed the sea to settle the island continent. (Sea levels were lower then, and Australia was connected with New Guinea, but still isolated from mainland Asia.) This is not settled science. Some researchers think climate change was to blame. But I think the evidence in the case of this and later mass extinctions is strongly in favor of humans as the major agent of extinction. This is one more reason to treat the advent of our species as one of the major evolutionary transitions, comparable to the evolution of complex cells, or multi-cellular life.


From 50 thousand years ago, Shanidar 1 is one of the most complete Neanderthal skeletons known, from the famous Shanidar site in Iraqi Kurdistan. He stood about 5’8” tall, on the tall side for a Neanderthal. He died around 40 years old.

creb shanidar 1

The poor guy was also a mess. His right arm had been useless for a while before he died, and he may have been missing his right forearm entirely. His right foot was injured and arthritic, and he must have walked with a limp. He had also suffered a crushing blow to the left side of his head, which healed, but probably left him blind in that eye. And he had a bad scalp wound on his right. Not a pretty picture, but it tells us something interesting about Neanderthal social life: somebody cared enough about this guy to keep him alive, although he was probably too disabled to contribute much as a hunter.

Jean Auel used Shanidar 1 as a model for Creb, a crippled Neanderthal shaman, in her Earth’s Children series (Clan of the Cave Bear, etc.).

Shanidar 3, another skeleton, not quite contemporary with Shanidar 1, tells us about another side of Neanderthal life. He’s got a deep gash in one of his ribs, almost certainly inflicted by a knife or spear point. The wound had begun to heal, so he probably died a few weeks after being injured. An interesting interpretation of this wound comes from Steven Churchill (gated, sorry). In experiments with reconstructed weapons and pig carcasses, he found that the closest approximation to Shanidar 3’s injury came from a spear cast by a spear thrower. Neanderthals are not known to have used spear throwers, so it’s possible that Shanidar 3 fell victim to Homo sapiens moving into the area.