Feeds

Neanderthals had key speech gene, researchers say

But did they have much to say?

The Power of One Infographic

Neanderthals may have a reputation in popular culture as a lumbering, grunting people, but researchers have discovered that they did have a gene thought to play a key role in speech.

Samples of DNA were retrieved from two Neanderthal fossils found in a cave in northern Spain. Careful examination revealed that the pair both had the FOXP2 gene. The human version of this gene is different from the chimp version in two places, leading scientists to speculate that these changes are responsible for our ability to speak. The Neanderthals both had the human version.

The findings push back the emergence of a particular gene in the human family tree by some 300,000 years, to the time when the Neanderthal and modern human populations diverged. Previously, the gene was thought to have swept through the modern human population just 50,000 years ago.

But their being capable of speech doesn't prove that we would have been able to sit down with the "cavemen" and have a natter over a cup of tea (proving that our evolutionary cousins could speak is pretty much impossible, given the absence of contemporary sound recording equipment).

However, Svante Paabo, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who extracted the critical parts of the gene, told the New York Times: "There is no reason to think Neanderthals couldn't speak like humans with respect to FOXP2, but obviously there are many other genes involved in language and speech."

To work out exactly what changes might be wrought in a brain with the human version of FOXP2, the researchers have turned to mice.

Dr Paabo has grown a batch of lab mice whose FOXP2 genes have been replaced with the human version, and says that although their behaviour is unchanged "there seems to be a change in vocalisation. They squeak in a different way". The mice also have extra connections in their brains.

Critics of the work have suggested it could have been contaminated by human DNA, and while Paabo acknowledges this as a possibility, he says he does everything he can to minimise that chance.

You can read more about Dr Paabo's work here. ®

Eight steps to building an HP BladeSystem

More from The Register

next story
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 claimed lives of HIV/AIDS cure scientists
Researchers, advocates, health workers among those on shot-down plane
Forty-five years ago: FOOTPRINTS FOUND ON MOON
NASA won't be back any time soon, sadly
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Eccentric billionaire Musk gets his PRIVATE SPACEPORT
In the Lone Star State, perhaps appropriately enough
MARS NEEDS OCEANS to support life - and so do exoplanets
Just being in the Goldilocks zone doesn't mean there'll be anyone to eat the porridge
Diary note: Pluto's close-up is a year from … now!
New Horizons is less than a year from the dwarf planet
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
prev story

Whitepapers

Reducing security risks from open source software
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.