Monday, April 21, 2008

Mimicking Neanderthal Voices

Anthropologists led by Professor Robert McCarthy at Florida Atlantic University have just begun simulating neanderthal speech (meaning their vowel sounds). It's a fascinating and appealing project to anyone who has ever been inflicted with what fantasy writer Elizabeth Kerner has called ferrinshadik - that is, the desire to speak with sentient species other than one's own (J.R.R. Tolkien cited a similar impulse behind the longing of readers for tales of elves and dwarves). The neanderthals, so similar to us and yet so apart, have not been around for 30,000 years. None of us and none of our remembered ancestors ever got to speak with them or learn how they perceived the world we shared.

The speech mimicking remains quite controversial, as anthropologists debate the level of sophistication of neanderthal vocalization (who we once assumed could only grunt). A lot of the debate is summarized for laymen in this British news article which nonetheless falls prey to exactly the assumptions that underlie the debate. Our friendly journalist declares with surprising haughtiness:

They became extinct around 30,000 years ago after failing to compete with the brighter and more adaptable Homo sapiens.

Actually, we have no idea why neanderthals became extinct. Theories include climate shift, a decline in game (neanderthals were aggressively carnivorous, whereas early homo sapiens were omnivorous), or increased need for long-distance migration. There is no evidence that early homo sapiens were necessarily brighter or better. (In fact, had we remained locked in an Ice Age, neanderthals would have proven far better adapted to the extreme cold and probably far brighter about their means of surviving and thriving under those conditions.) We continue to perpetuate one of our most beloved and most erroneous myths: that of the caveman and of the heroic upward evolutionary climb of the human species. The myth runs something like this: We are the heroes, we dragged ourselves out of the primordial goo by our bootstraps and we dominate the world, and we were the only ones who managed it. Is anyone else struck by the subtle malignancy of this myth that continues to pervade both our scientific journalism and our scientific journals - that distracts us from either objective study of our past or from looking upon our genetic relatives with compassion)?

Recent primatological studies of plains chimpanzees in Senegal, Africa reveal that these chimpanzees have learned to hunt their prey with sharpened spears. If the Senegal chimpanzees become extinct at some point (all too possible), will our descendant journalists 30,000 years from now be writing about how they died out because homo sapiens was brighter and more adaptable? Of course nothing could be further from the truth. If the chimpanzees do die out, it will be not because we are brighter but because we were earlier: we beat them to the punch.

Hopefully in 30,000 years we will be a wiser species - but that supposition would itself be a subscription to the evolutionary hero myth.

No comments: