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March 17, 2005

The Singing Neandertal

A some amusing article about the high pitched voices of Neandertals (at least, that is the hypothesis). The piece notes that Steven Mithen, author of The Prehistory of the Mind, is coming out with a new book titled The Singing Neanderthal: The Origin of Language, Music Body and Mind. Reading Mithen's previous book I am somewhat surprised that he would offer such a title, in The Prehistory of the Mind he comes close to advocating a deux ex machina in "solving" the problem of the rise of sapience in humanity, and, he implicitly leaves Neandertals out of the picture. One interesting thing I've noted is that the closest thing that I can perceive to a "consensus" is that Neandertals might have had some form of language and sapiency, but that they were crucially different, and the genetic evidence does seem to suggest that fit the bill as a separate species.

In my previous post The end of the Andaman Islanders? I pointed to an article which highlights the immunological barrier that separates the natives from the immigrants. This is a case where two populations of humans are separated by a fact of biology, in that one population will over time spread diseases to another so that death is inevitable. Of course, the two populations are still interfertile, so they are not dinstinct under a biological species concept, but, I think they flirt with differentiation under the ecological species concept. Bringing this back to the Neandertals, one of the researchers brings up the possibility that our cousins were deciminated by diseases. I think the crucial variables here are band size and frequency of band-to-band interaction. If the Neandertals tended to live in a far more isolated and nucleated fashion than moderns, their density might not have supported many diseases in comparison to the more numerous agglomeration of moderns. If we find loci in the modern human genome that seem to be evidence of interfertility between various hominins, the biological species concept distinction will be brought into question, but I think we can be confident that there was an ecological species separation....

Posted by razib at 06:18 PM