In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. David Frayer of the University of Kansas reveals evidence of handedness among Neanderthals and discusses what the new data implies about their capacity of language.
David Frayer is a professor of biological anthropology at the University of Kansas where his research areas include paleoanthropology, human osteology, and Old World prehistory. He has worked extensively in Europe on Neandertal, Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic and Medieval human dental/skeletal material, along with remains from fossil sites in Africa, the Levant, Central Asia and SE Asia. His work has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals and he holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.
Dr. David Frayer – Speech and Handedness in Neanderthals
Humans are a uniquely right-handed species, wherever they are found. Whether hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, herders, rural or city dwellers, for every nine right handed people there is one left handed person. Handedness is a measure of brain laterality, with the left side of the brain controlling the right side of the body and vice versa. People who have had a stroke on the brain’s left side often lose functionality of the body’s right side along with speech capacity. From this, we have known for more than 100 years that language is primarily located on the brain’s left side, so handedness is a measure of laterality and language.
Our group is interested in determining if Neandertals were also hand lateralized. We have been documenting obliquity of scratches on the lip side of the front teeth. Imagine clenching an object between your teeth and pulling with your left hand and cutting with a stone tool in your right hand. If you pierce the material and the tool’s edge strikes the tooth enamel, it leaves an oblique scratch. Reverse hands and the scratch’s obliquity is the opposite angle. Given enough scratches, this obliquity measures handedness. Our sample comprises 35 Neandertals from 130,000-30,000 years ago with a ratio of 32 right : 3 left or greater than 90% right-handedness.
Recent studies of Neandertal paleoculture indicate they were much more sophisticated than normally supposed, with evidence for the use of pigments, eagle talon pendants and feathers, along with burials and other signs of cultural complexity. Using handedness as a proxy for brain lateralization and language capacity, Neandertals spoke like us too.