Author Archives: logarithmichistory

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. That’s (at least) one trick. 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 Johneatpizza … 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).
So language gets its open-ended expressive power by fastening together expressive and functional constructions in (more-or-less) alternating levels.

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, together with nouns slotted in the appropriate spaces as needed, and adjectives added to convey additional information. Is this what Neanderthal language was like? There is evidence that Neanderthal ancestors as far back as 430,000 years had hearing specialized for the frequencies of speech. (This is not the case with chimpanzees, or earlier hominins.*) But we don’t know yet how complex Neanderthal speech was. Eventually, 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 build shed. Carg nail trim today. Carg publish blogpost now. Tonight Carg dance. Goodbye!

*My spellchecker keeps changing “hominins” to “hominids.” Get with the 21st century, spellchecker!

The Inheritors

42.4-40.2 thousand years ago

“The Inheritors” is a novel by William Golding about the encounter between Neanderthals and modern humans. Like another Golding novel, “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.

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. 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 may 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. On the other hand, other Neanderthal genes  – especially genes related to immune function – were useful to modern humans moving into Neanderthal territory and are found at high frequency in Europeans today.

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: check out this post on the Habsburgs.)

Some new data put this in perspective. My colleagues Alan Rogers, Chad Huff and Ryan Bohlender have just shown that the population ancestral to Neanderthals and  Denisovans separated from the ancestors of Homo sapiens somewhat more than 750,000 years ago, passing through a narrow population bottleneck, probably in an early Out Of Africa episode (before the later modern human Out Of Africa episode). This population then split somewhat less than 750,000 years ago into Neanderthal and Denisovan branches. So 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 been evolving separately for 100,000 years or less outside Africa, and perhaps 250,000 years within Africa. This has been enough time to evolve major differences in traits like skin color and hair form, but apparently 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 may be on the edge of another episode of mass extinction, a Sixth Extinction. (although rates of species extinction don’t match those of earlier ME’s). 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 by around 45,000 years ago, after humans 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 him 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.

Two roads diverged

53-50 thousand years ago.

The broad outlines of the spread of Homo sapiens have been established for several decades now: origins in Africa, expansion out of Africa at least 50-45 thousand years ago. But we’re still arguing about the details. Just this year it’s been reported that modern humans reached Sumatra 73-63 thousand years ago, and that stone tools in Australia date back 60 thousand years ago.

Also, based on recent recalibrations of DNA mutation rates, it looks like the African/non-African split might have happened more like 100 thousand years ago than 50 thousand years ago. So the ancestors of non-African (or non-sub-Saharan-African) H. sapiens might have occupied a homeland somewhere north of the Sahara between 100 and 50 thousand years ago, before spreading through Eurasia. North Africa is one possibility. The Near East, maybe the Arabian peninsula, is another possibility. The (or “a”) homeland might be (gated, sorry) underwater, under the Persian Gulf (sea levels were lower then). Both possibilities have some archeological support. There might have been multiple homelands, and multiple expansions – south through Arabia and along the shores of the Indian Ocean, and north through the Levant and into Europe.

A recent (2015) redating of archeological finds suggests that the Levant-to-Europe corridor was part of the story. A modern stone tool technology, coming from Ksar Akil, just outside Beirut, Lebanon, dates to about 50,000 years ago, a little before much the same technology appears in Europe, in the form of the Upper Paleolithic.

And many other “details” remain to be resolved: What did interbreeding with non-sapiens mean for the evolution of H. sapiens? And just what advantage(s) did H. sapiens have that allowed him (us!) to replace other species? Stay tuned for more on Logarithmic History

Toba? or the sperm whale effect?

74 thousand years ago, a big chunk of the island of Sumatra blew up. It was the biggest volcanic explosion in the past two million years, expelling 2800 times as much debris as the Mount Saint Helens eruption in Washington State in 1980. Ash from the super-eruption is found all the way from Lake Malawi to the South China Sea. The resulting Toba caldera measures about 20 by 60 miles.


The Toba eruption coincides with a shift back to glacial conditions, and it may be that there’s a connection, that Earth went through a long volcanic winter after the eruption, which shifted climate to a colder equilibrium.

Did Toba have an effect on human evolution? Somewhere between 100 and 50 thousand years ago, human populations went through a bottleneck: modern humans are descended from just 1,000 to 10,000 breeding pairs from that period. It’s been argued that Toba wiped out the majority of Homo sapiens around at the time, leaving only a small group of survivors.

But the evidence that Toba is responsible for the bottleneck is equivocal. In some places humans seem to have passed through the period of the eruption without major disruptions. Also, there’s a point that gets missed in a lot of popular reporting: just because a species went through a bottleneck doesn’t necessarily mean that the population of the whole species ever shrank to that size. In the case of Homo sapiens it could be that the total population was always many times larger than 1,000-10,000. It’s just that the other tens or hundreds of thousands got replaced. In other words, we may not be looking at an external catastrophe wiping out most of humanity, and a few groups of survivors recovering. Instead, we may be looking at a small population of our eventual ancestors expanding and outcompeting other populations, so that it was our ancestors, not a volcano, who made sure that most human beings alive 74,000 years ago didn’t leave descendants.

This may reflect something special about human evolution: human beings typically belong to tribes and ethnic groups defined by distinctive cultures, and cultural boundaries (including language boundaries) often act as barriers to interbreeding. Several authors have suggested that this may make human beings unusually susceptible to population replacement via “cultural group selection,” and that this might account for humans having unusually low effective population size, as genes “hitchhike” along with expanding cultures. Interestingly, sperm whales, which live in populations defined by different song dialects (and other cultural differences) may show the same genetic pattern.

In May 2015, the Toba volcano grew more active than usual, producing large emissions of steam and foul gases. Locals were reported to be concerned.