They may not be known for their intellectual might, but Neanderthals were actually among the first individuals on Earth to bury their dead and express themselves artistically, new research shows.

Neanderthal Skull
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A new study of Neanderthal DNA published, in the latest issue of Current Biology, suggests Neanderthals also had the ability to create language.

The finding hinges upon a single, yet critical, gene called FOXP2, which prior studies have linked to language and speech. Most birds, mammals and even fish retain a version of this gene, but only humans and Neanderthals share a variant form of it that is believed to enable language.

"So from the point of this gene," lead author Johannes Krause told Discovery News, "there is no reason to think that Neanderthals did not have language as we do."

He added that the find also represents "the first time a specific nuclear gene (has been) retrieved from Neanderthals."

Krause, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and his colleagues extracted DNA from two 38,000-year-old Neanderthals collected from El Sidron Cave in Asturias, Spain.

To avoid contamination with human DNA, the researchers took extraordinary precautions, such as wearing masks, lab coats and sterile gloves, as well as freezing the Neanderthal bodies before transporting them out of Spain.

The Neanderthals appear to have been cannibalized after their death, which may have actually helped preserve their DNA over the millenia.

"The defleshing might (have) minimized the decay of the bones and their endogenous DNA," Krause explained.

Before this study, it was thought that modern humans evolved the special language version of the gene after we split from Neanderthals more than 300,000 years ago. Before that time, we shared a common ancestor, perhaps the big-brained Homo heidelbergensis, aka "Heidelberg Man."

Now it’s unclear when the language-linked gene arose, since Heidelberg Man may have first emerged around 600,000 years ago. But Krause said "it would be more plausible" if the changes to the gene arose just before humans and Neanderthals split "around 350,000 years ago, and not much before."

Researchers continue to debate whether or not modern humans and Neanderthals interbred. If they did, that could explain the shared gene and the propensity for speech. Studies on that question remain inconclusive, however.

Krause said he and his team have found "no hard evidence" of interbreeding, but "the Neanderthal genome sequence will ultimately solve this question."

Eric Trinkaus, a Washington University anthropologist, shared with Discovery News a commentary he wrote on the new research.

In it, Trinkaus expresses his view that there is no "silver bullet" like language, "which identifies us as ‘human’ and which can be used to identify past human forms as more or less ‘human.’"

Trinkaus wrote that the findings "not only permit the much maligned Neanderthals a degree of human behavior that has been evident in their burials and archaeological record for 100 years, they also permit a perspective on the emergence of modern human behavior — including language."

The study, he suggests, may not only change our view of Neanderthals, but also of ourselves.

Via: Discovery Channel