Posts Tagged ‘neanderthal’

While musical instruments appear to be a relatively recent innovation, music itself is almost certainly significantly older. Research suggests it may have allowed our distant ancestors to communicate before the invention of language, been linked to the establishment of monogamy and helped provide the social glue needed for the emergence of the first large early and pre-human societies. There is also emerging evidence that music might have even deeper origins: some monkeys can distinguish between sound patterns in ways similar to how humans can recognise slight differences between melodies.

It’s also likely that Neanderthals were not the uncultured brutes of popular imagination. A reassessment of the available evidence carried out by a Dutch group suggests it does not support widely held ideas about the species having only primitive tools and weapons, lacking the ability to communicate using signs and symbols, having a narrow diet and only basic forms of social organisation.

“There is growing evidence that Neanderthal cognitive capacities were comparable to those of modern humans,” says Ruth Biasco at the Gibraltar Museum. It’s not inconceivable that Neanderthals might have made and used musical instruments, she says – although until solid evidence is found to back up the suggestion, she prefers to remain cautious.

possible neaderthal flute

In fact, there is at least one candidate Neanderthal musical instrument – a 43,000-year-old bone flute found at a Neanderthal site in Slovenia. The find is controversial, though, with many researchers arguing that the flute’s “finger holes” are nothing more than puncture wounds left when a large carnivore chewed on the bone.

It’s a debate that highlights some of the difficulties in identifying early musical instruments. For one thing, they may not have been made entirely from scratch but from materials that, through natural processes, were suitable for making music. Even today, for example, didgeridoo craftsmen begin making their instruments by searching for trees that have been hollowed out by termites. Recognising instruments like this at ancient human sites is not impossible, says origin-of-music researcher Francesco d’Errico at the University of Bordeaux in France. “But it requires a lot of effort and dedicated research.”

There is one musical instrument researchers can say with some confidence substantially predates 40,000 years – and it’s one that Neanderthals almost certainly had at their disposal. The human voice may have gained its full vocal range at least 530,000 years ago, suggesting several species of extinct human – including Neanderthals – had the potential to sing.

We know this because of some remarkable fossil finds made within the last decade or so. There is a tiny horseshoe-shaped bone in our neck called the hyoid, and some researchers think its shape changed when our voice box moved down our throat to take up a position that allows us to talk and sing. Archaeologists have now found a small number of these fragile hyoids belonging to Neanderthals and to another, earlier human species called Homo heidelbergensis: they have the same shape as the modern human hyoid

A careful look at ancient skulls suggests even those belonging to our 1.8-million-year-old forerunners had slightly descended voice boxes. This means our ancestors may have had some crude ability to sing for a very long time, and that the ability gradually improved through time.

More recently Thomas Geissmann at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, came up with another interesting theory. In a book published in the year 2000, he pointed out that the four other singing primates (some lemurs, tarsiers, titi monkeys and gibbons) all form monogamous breeding pairs – as do many humans, and amongst birds duetting mainly occurs in monogamous species. Perhaps, Geissmann suggested, singing is somehow related to the evolution of monogamy – although exactly how or why is still unclear.

gibbons singing together

Other explanations for the origin of music emphasise the obvious similarities between human song and language. Most of us recognise that music can communicate to us – even a wordless melody can make us feel happy or sad. Dean Falk at Florida State University in Tallahassee, US, points out that we can also often understand the emotional state of someone from the tone of their voice, even if they are speaking a language we are unfamiliar with.

Perhaps music and language both evolved out of the need for early humans to communicate their emotional state to other members of the group. Other primates often rely on grooming to connect emotionally with their peers – but at some point in our prehistory, humans began to come together in larger groups, and needed a way to broadcast their emotional state to a greater number of individuals to keep the group united.

Any, or all, of these hypotheses for the origin of music might be true. There are differences between them, but they all suggest our ability to make and appreciate music was an important step in early human evolution. Many also highlight music’s role in social bonding – fitting neatly with the idea that the 40,000-year-old musical instruments are evidence of the strong social ties that contributed to modern human success in Europe.

But there is still some way to go before scientists have a comprehensive picture of the origins of music. For instance, some primates that don’t use music nonetheless seem to have an ear for a tune. Last year Andrea Ravignani at the University of Vienna in Austria and the University of Edinburgh in the UK found that squirrel monkeys can recognise subtle differences in sound patterns in much the same way that humans can distinguish between different melodies or different word phrases in spoken language…

“Abilities that underlie some of our musical traits seem to be showing up in animals more and more,” says Morley.

neanderthal art

An engraving found at a cave in Gibraltar may be the most compelling evidence yet for Neanderthal art.

The pattern, which bears a passing resemblance to the grid for a game of noughts and crosses, was inscribed on a rock at the back of Gorham’s Cave.

Mounting evidence suggests Neanderthals were not the brutes they were characterised as decades ago.

But art, a high expression of abstract thought, was long considered to be the exclusive preserve of our own species.

The scattered candidates for artistic expression by Neanderthals have not met with universal acceptance.

However, the geometric pattern identified in Gibraltar, on the southern tip of Europe, was uncovered beneath undisturbed sediments that have also yielded Neanderthal tools…

Previous candidates for Neanderthal cave art exist, including motifs from caves in northern and southern Spain. Possible jewellery has been found at a site in central France, and there are even claims Neanderthals were responsible for an early musical instrument – a bone “flute” found at Divje Babe in Slovenia.

It’s a recurrent phenomenon in the study of early “art” objects that they lay unrecognized in museum collections for years after their initial excavation. The shell ornaments from Skhul, Israel and Oued Djebbana, Algeria were both found recently by Marian Vanhaeren and colleagues, despite having been excavated decades earlier (“Old shell beads in Dorothy Garrod’s stuff”). The importance of many such objects is not obvious until they are examined in comparative perspective.

The Trinil engraved shell is an example of this phenomenon. It lay in a museum for more than a hundred years, unrecognized, until the right person went to study the shells for an entirely different reason. It took looking at 166 individual mussels, most of which probably passed through the hands of ancient humans, to find one with clearly intentional markings. It is not going to be the last Homo erectus intentionally marked artifact.

homo erectus art joordens-et-al-nature-clamshell-figure-2-2014

The discovery of ochre droplets from an early Neandertal context, more than 200,000 years ago in the Netherlands, as reported by Wil Roebroeks and colleagues (2012) is another example of something that would have been completely missed by a less careful excavation protocol. The ochre droplets are an instructive case because ochre marking is an activity that leaves no permanent archaeological trace unless it occurs deep inside caves on geologically inert surfaces. Only the discovery of ochre crayons with signs of use, such as grooves produced for pigment removal, have in the past provided some archaeological documentation of ochre marking, and even then the archaeologist may not be able to reject the hypothesis that the ochre was used for quotidian purposes like mastic instead of marking of skin or objects.


Researchers eavesdropping on wild chimpanzees have determined that the primates communicate about at least two things: their favourite fruits and the trees where these fruits can be found.

Of particular interest to the chimps is the size of the trees bearing these fruits – the chimps yell out that information, according to a new study published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

The study is the first to find that information about tree size and available fruit amounts are included in chimp calls, in addition to assessments about food quality.

Chimpanzees definitely have a very complex communication system that includes a variety of vocalisations, but also facial expressions and gestures,” says project leader Ammie Kalan of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

“How much it resembles human language is still a matter of debate,” she says, “but at the very least, research shows that chimpanzees use vocalisations in a sophisticated manner, taking into account their social and environmental surroundings.”

chimps apples grunt scottish accent

The findings, reported in the journal Current Biology, suggest that when chimp grunts refer to objects, they can function in a surprisingly similar way to human words – instead of simply being governed by how the chimp feels about the object.

Indeed, our ability to learn new “words” from our peers might date back to a shared ancestor with chimpanzees, some six million years ago.

Dr Katie Slocombe, the paper’s senior author, is a lecturer in psychology at the University of York.

“One really powerful way to try and understand how language evolved is to look at the communication systems of animals that are closely related to us,” she told the BBC’s Science in Action.

In their work with captive chimpanzees, Dr Slocombe’s team had already seen that different grunts could refer to specific foods – for example, apples and bread. Other chimps would respond to those calls by looking for the corresponding food.

But those grunts closely matched the emotional value of the food.

“Previously it’d always been assumed that although chimps and other monkeys have these referential calls… that the structure of those calls was basically a read-out of emotion,” Dr Slocombe explained.

To challenge this idea, she and her team took advantage of the unique situation at Edinburgh Zoo, where nine chimps from the Netherlands’ Beekse Bergen Safari Park were moved in with an existing group of nine adults in 2010.

Crucially, they found a “word” that differed strikingly between the two groups.

The Edinburgh chimps were not especially partial to apples and used a low-pitched grunt to refer to them; the Dutch newcomers, on the other hand, “really loved apples and gave much higher-pitched calls”.

One year later in 2011, the scientists’ monitoring showed disappointingly little change. Both groups used the same old calls – but looking closely at their social behaviour, it was also apparent that they weren’t getting on very well.

“They weren’t spending much quality time together, and there weren’t many friendships,” Dr Slocombe said. “So they didn’t seem to have any motivation to change their calling.”

By 2013 however, the groups were getting on famously. There were firm Scottish-Dutch friendships and the chimps had essentially formed one big group of 18.

Along with that social bonding, there had been a remarkable shift in one key aspect of their communication: “The Dutch chimps had actually adopted the Edinburgh call for apples.”

“What kind of basic communication skills were in that common ancestor? And what really is unique in humans, and has evolved since?”

The 1967 discovery of humpback whale songs by biologists Roger Payne and Scott McVay triggered a sea change in public perception. Long considered a “portentous and mysterious monster,” as author Herman Melville put it, baleen whales suddenly came across as gentle, intelligent and soulful.
Payne and McVay revealed that male humpbacks produce complex vocalizations featuring repeated “themes” that can last up to 30 minutes, which Payne described as an “exuberant, uninterrupted river of sound.”
Researchers have noticed that blue whale songs are becoming more baritone in recent decades, dropping by half an octave since the 1960s. No one knows why, but it might be a sign their populations are recovering. Some scientists think the whales produced higher-pitched songs when they were scarce to increase the odds of being heard by other whales. Now that blue whales are more abundant, they might be lowering their voices back to their original pitch.

Whitehead’s and Rendell’s chapter on whale song is key to their provocative, brilliant book. We now know that these songs are evidence of what they term the first non-human cultural revolution. Humpbacks on the east coast of Australia, for instance, learn their song from those on the west coast. The songs change from year to year, subtly shifting in tone and composition, as if a new hit version had been released and every whale were keen to follow the fashion. The songs are clearly part of the mating process, but why do they display such an elaborate expression (some last for more than 24 hours)? The authors examine two theories. First, that the songs signify belonging and bettering among the males, a reassurance of culture in common, a secret code or call to assembly.

What is the evidence for cultural transmission in other cetaceans? Socially learned foraging techniques include the use of tools – dolphins will employ sponges to protect their beaks from the poisonous barbs of fish as they search in the sea’s sandy bed. For orca, or killer whales, diet itself is a cultural statement. Fish-eating or meat-eating orca define themselves by their consumption, to the extent that captive whales accustomed to dining on seals will starve rather than eat proffered salmon. Bottlenose dolphins, enduring our intimate observations, enslaved in dolphinaria, yield precious clues to their sense of self-identity. Not only do they use signature whistles for themselves, but they will mimic others’ whistles in an act of complex communication. Plaintively, dolphins in captivity can remember the whistles of companions from whom they have been separated for 20 years or more.

Together with fellow scientists Ricardo Antunes and Shane Gero, Whitehead and Rendell have discovered five clans of Pacific sperm whales, defined by the sequences of clicks they use to communicate, like a South African Xhosa-speaker. Loosely assembled in vast groups of thousands, these tribes interact with one another yet remain discrete, self-identified by their click dialects. It is a kind of ethnicity, a sign of “the way we do things”. In this limitless water world, a whale’s home is other whales. Bound by communality, sperm-whale culture expresses a collective individuality: “We” and “us” may be more important than “I” and “me”. If that isn’t a lesson for their Homo sapiens cousins, I don’t know what is.


Publishing their results in the Journal of Experimental Biology, the scientists aren’t sure what the squid are trying to say, but they are fairly certain they are communicating with each other. Humboldt squid do so by rapidly squeezing cells in their skin called chromatophores and turning their whole bodies from white to red and back again. This flashing can change speed and direction on the skin in response to all kinds of squid interactions, from mating attempts to displays of aggression.

But which patterns the squid show off have yet to be mapped onto some kind of color vocabulary. This is the first time we’ve strapped a camera to a squid.

Elephants communicate in a complicated, sophisticated language that scientists are trying to decipher and compile into the world’s first elephant dictionary.

startide rising uplift novels

In terms of a scientifically upgraded version of “human rights” that might be called “human citizenship,” let’s imagine this open-door immigration policy as ontological rather than geographical in nature. Thus, non–Homo sapiens may be allowed to migrate to the space of the “human.” Animal-rights activists believe they are already primed for this prospect. They can demonstrate that primates and aquatic mammals are not only sentient but also engaged in various higher cognitive functions, including what’s nowadays called “mental time-travel.” This is the ability to set long-term goals and pursue them to completion because the envisaged value of the goal overrides that of the diversions encountered along the way. While this is indeed a good empirical marker of the sort of autonomy historically required for republican citizenship, in practice animal-rights activists embed this point in an argument for de-facto species segregationism, a “separate but equal” policy, in which the only enforceable sense of “rights” is one of immunity from bodily harm from humans. It is the sense of “rights” qua dependency that a child or a disabled person might enjoy.

The fact that claims to animal rights carry no sense of reciprocal obligations on the part of the animals toward humans raises question about the activists’ sincerity in appealing to “rights” at all. However, if the activists are sincere, then they should also call for a proactive policy of what the science-fiction writer David Brin has termed “uplift,” whereby we prioritize research designed to enable cognitively privileged creatures, regardless of material origin, to achieve capacities enabling them to function as peers in what might be regarded as an expanded circle of humanity. Such research may focus on gene therapy or prosthetic enhancement, but in the end it would inform a Welfare State 2.0 that takes seriously our obligation to all those we regard as able to be rendered human, in the sense of fully autonomous citizens in the Republic of Humanity.


It’s not too early to construct Turing Test 2.0 tests of human citizenship that attempt to capture the full complexity of the sorts of beings we would have live among us as equals. A good place to start would be with a sympathetic rendering of long-standing—and too easily dismissed—“ anthropomorphic” attributions to animals and machines. Welfare State 2.0 policies could then be designed to enable a wide assortment of candidate beings—from carbon to silicon—to meet the requisite standard of citizenship implied in such attributions. Indeed, many classic welfare-state policies, such as compulsory mass education and childhood vaccination, can be understood retrospectively as the original political commitment to “uplift” in Brin’s sense—but applied only to members of Homo sapiens living within the territory governed by a nation-state.

However, by removing the need to be Homo sapiens to qualify for human citizenship, we’re faced with a political situation comparable to the European Union’s policy for accession of new member states. The policy assumes that candidate states start with certain historical disadvantages vis-à- vis membership in the Union but that these are in principle surmountable. Thus, there’s a pre-accession period in which the candidate states are monitored for political and economic stability, as well as treatment of their own citizens, after which integration occurs in stages—starting with the free mobility of students and workers, the harmonization of laws, and revenue transfers from more established member states. To be sure, there’s pushback by both the established and the candidate member states. But notwithstanding these painful periods of mutual adjustment, the process has so far worked and may prove a model for the ontological union of humanity.


The Nonhuman Autonomous Space Agency is a network of robotic and biological systems, tied together by exchanges in the material and attention economies. One set of probes searches the asteroid belt for resources drifting in the solar wind like giant flowers. Another set, made from modified classic spacecraft, uses its manufacturing and fabrication capacity to shape those resources. Together they build and nurture the habitats for animals and robots, while the whole process can be followed on social media from Earth, all mediated by servers on the Moon.


The Lazy River is a habitat for chickens and manatees, modeled on south Florida. It has a sevenfold symmetry, formed from the deconstruction of a source rock into its component materials, then extruded with a 3D printer and woven together, with a large river around the middle, and windows fore and aft that receive reflected sunlight.

Manatee-IPads-sw_1715 (1)

The river running around the deepest part of the hollow asteroid is home to a colony of Florida manatees. In intelligence tests, manatees have performed at least as well as dolphins, in both pattern recognition, and task performance, if more slowly. Unlike most other intelligent aquatic mammals, the manatee’s flippers are visible in their field of vision, allowing for fine grained flipper-eye coordination. There is no reason why a manatee would not be able to operate a touchscreen device, in theory.


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