Neanderthal study reveals origin of language is far older than once thought

Neanderthal study reveals origin of language is far older than once thought


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Neanderthals were once considered to be subhuman brutes with low intelligence and capable of communicating through little more than a series of grunts. However, research fuelled by a fascination into the plight of the Neanderthals who mysteriously died out some 30,000 years ago, has revealed that Neanderthals were not as primitive as once believed. New research has now revealed that Neanderthals most likely had a sophisticated form of speech and language not dissimilar to what we have today.

It was long believed that our ancient human ancestors, including the Neanderthals, lacked the necessary cognitive capacity and vocal hardware for speech and language. However, an international team of scientists led by Associate Professor Stephen Wroe, a zoologist and palaeontologist from the University of New England, has made a revolutionary discovery which challenges the notion that Homo sapiens are unique in their capacity for speech and language.

The research team utilised latest 3D x-ray imagining technology to examine a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal hyoid bone discovered in the Kebara Cave in Israel in 1989. The hyoid bone, otherwise called the lingual bone, is a small, u-shaped bone situated centrally in the upper part of the neck, beneath the mandible but above the larynx. The function of the hyoid is to provide an anchor point for the muscles of the tongue and for those in the upper part of the front of the neck.

The Neanderthal remains found in the Kebara Cave, Israel. Photo source

The hyoid bone, which is the only bone in the body not connected to any other, is the foundation of speech and is found only in humans and Neanderthals. Other animals have versions of the hyoid, but only the human variety is in the right position to work in unison with the larynx and tongue and make us the chatterboxes of the animal world. Without it, scientists say we'd still be making noises much like chimpanzees.

Location of the Hyoid bone

The discovery of the modern-looking hyoid bone of a Neanderthal man in the Kebara Cave led its discoverers to argue many years ago that the Neanderthals had a descended larynx, and thus human-like speech capabilities.

“To many, the Neanderthal hyoid discovered was surprising because its shape was very different to that of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. However, it was virtually indistinguishable from that of our own species. This led to some people arguing that this Neanderthal could speak,” said Professor Wroe.

However, other researchers have claimed that the morphology of the hyoid was not indicative of the larynx's position and that it was necessary to take into consideration the skull base, the mandible and the cervical vertebrae and a cranial reference plane. It was also argued that the fact that the Neanderthal hyoid was the same shape as humans did not necessarily mean they were used in the same way.

However, through advances in 3D imaging and computer modelling, Professor Wroe’s team was able to examine this issue. By analysing the mechanical behaviour of the fossilised bone with micro x-ray imaging, they were able to build models of the hyoid that included the intricate internal structure of the bone. They then compared them to models of modern humans.

The results showed that in terms of mechanical behaviour, the Neanderthal hyoid was basically indistinguishable from our own, strongly suggesting that this key part of the vocal tract was used in exactly the same way.

“From this research, we can conclude that it’s likely that the origins of speech and language are far, far older than once thought,” said Professor Wroe. The first proto-Neanderthal traits appeared as early as 350,000 – 600,000 years ago, which means that, potentially, language has been around for this period of time or even earlier.

Featured image: Depiction of the Hyoid bone in a Neanderthal. Image source .


How Did Language Begin?

In asking about the origins of human language, we first have to make clear what the question is. The question is not how languages gradually developed over time into the languages of the world today. Rather, it is how the human species developed over time so that we - and not our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos - became capable of using language.

And what an amazing development this was! No other natural communication system is like human language. Human language can express thoughts on an unlimited number of topics (the weather, the war, the past, the future, mathematics, gossip, fairy tales, how to fix the sink. ). It can be used not just to convey information, but to solicit information (questions) and to give orders. Unlike any other animal communication system, it contains an expression for negation - what is not the case. Every human language has a vocabulary of tens of thousands of words, built up from several dozen speech sounds. Speakers can build an unlimited number of phrases and sentences out of words plus a smallish collection of prefixes and suffixes, and the meanings of sentences are built from the meanings of the individual words. What is still more remarkable is that every typically-developing child learns the whole system from hearing others use it.

Animal communication systems, in contrast, typically have at most a few dozen distinct calls, and they are used only to communicate immediate issues such as food, danger, threat, or reconciliation. Many of the sorts of meanings conveyed by chimpanzee communication have counterparts in human 'body language'. For animals that use combinations of calls (such as some songbirds and some whales), the meanings of the combinations are not made up of the meanings of the parts (though there are many species that have not been studied yet). And the attempts to teach apes some version of human language, while fascinating, have produced only rudimentary results. So the properties of human language are unique in the natural world.

How did we get from there to here? All present-day languages, including those of hunter-gatherer cultures, have lots of words, can be used to talk about anything under the sun, and can express negation. As far back as we have written records of human language - 5000 years or so - things look basically the same. Languages change gradually over time, sometimes due to changes in culture and fashion, sometimes in response to contact with other languages. But the basic architecture and expressive power of language stays the same.

The question, then, is how the properties of human language got their start. Obviously, it couldn't have been a bunch of cavemen sitting around and deciding to make up a language, since in order to do so, they would have had to have a language to start with! Intuitively, one might speculate that hominids (human ancestors) started by grunting or hooting or crying out, and 'gradually' this 'somehow' developed into the sort of language we have today. (Such speculations were so rampant 150 years ago that in 1866 the French Academy banned papers on the origins of language!) The problem is in the 'gradually' and the 'somehow'. Chimps grunt and hoot and cry out, too. What happened to humans in the 6 million years or so since the hominid and chimpanzee lines diverged, and when and how did hominid communication begin to have the properties of modern language?

Of course, many other properties besides language differentiate humans from chimpanzees: lower extremities suitable for upright walking and running, opposable thumbs, lack of body hair, weaker muscles, smaller teeth - and larger brains. According to current thinking, the changes crucial for language were not just in the size of the brain, but in its character: the kinds of tasks it is suited to do - as it were, the 'software' it comes furnished with. So the question of the origin of language rests on the differences between human and chimpanzee brains, when these differences came into being, and under what evolutionary pressures.

What are we looking for?

The basic difficulty with studying the evolution of language is that the evidence is so sparse. Spoken languages don't leave fossils, and fossil skulls only tell us the overall shape and size of hominid brains, not what the brains could do. About the only definitive evidence we have is the shape of the vocal tract (the mouth, tongue, and throat): Until anatomically modern humans, about 100,000 years ago, the shape of hominid vocal tracts didn't permit the modern range of speech sounds. But that doesn't mean that language necessarily began then. Earlier hominids could have had a sort of language that used a more restricted range of consonants and vowels, and the changes in the vocal tract may only have had the effect of making speech faster and more expressive. Some researchers even propose that language began as sign language, then (gradually or suddenly) switched to the vocal modality, leaving modern gesture as a residue.

These issues and many others are undergoing lively investigation among linguists, psychologists, and biologists. One important question is the degree to which precursors of human language ability are found in animals. For instance, how similar are apes' systems of thought to ours? Do they include things that hominids would find it useful to express to each other? There is indeed some consensus that apes' spatial abilities and their ability to negotiate their social world provide foundations on which the human system of concepts could be built.

A related question is what aspects of language are unique to language and what aspects just draw on other human abilities not shared with other primates. This issue is particularly controversial. Some researchers claim that everything in language is built out of other human abilities: the ability for vocal imitation, the ability to memorize vast amounts of information (both needed for learning words), the desire to communicate, the understanding of others' intentions and beliefs, and the ability to cooperate. Current research seems to show that these human abilities are absent or less highly developed in apes. Other researchers acknowledge the importance of these factors but argue that hominid brains required additional changes that adapted them specifically for language.

Did it happen all at once or in stages?

How did these changes take place? Some researchers claim that they came in a single leap, creating through one mutation the complete system in the brain by which humans express complex meanings through combinations of sounds. These people also tend to claim that there are few aspects of language that are not already present in animals.

Other researchers suspect that the special properties of language evolved in stages, perhaps over some millions of years, through a succession of hominid lines. In an early stage, sounds would have been used to name a wide range of objects and actions in the environment, and individuals would be able to invent new vocabulary items to talk about new things. In order to achieve a large vocabulary, an important advance would have been the ability to 'digitize' signals into sequences of discrete speech sounds - consonants and vowels - rather than unstructured calls. This would require changes in the way the brain controls the vocal tract and possibly in the way the brain interprets auditory signals (although the latter is again subject to considerable dispute).

These two changes alone would yield a communication system of single signals - better than the chimpanzee system but far from modern language. A next plausible step would be the ability to string together several such 'words' to create a message built out of the meanings of its parts. This is still not as complex as modern language. It could have a rudimentary 'me Tarzan, you Jane' character and still be a lot better than single-word utterances. In fact, we do find such 'protolanguage' in two-year-old children, in the beginning efforts of adults learning a foreign language, and in so-called 'pidgins', the systems cobbled together by adult speakers of disparate languages when they need to communicate with each other for trade or other sorts of cooperation. This has led some researchers to propose that the system of 'protolanguage' is still present in modern human brains, hidden under the modern system except when the latter is impaired or not yet developed.

A final change or series of changes would add to 'protolanguage' a richer structure, encompassing such grammatical devices as plural markers, tense markers, relative clauses, and complement clauses ("Joe thinks that the earth is flat"). Again, some hypothesize that this could have been a purely cultural development, and some think it required genetic changes in the brains of speakers. The jury is still out.

When did this all happen? Again, it's very hard to tell. We do know that something important happened in the human line between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago: This is when we start to find cultural artifacts such as art and ritual objects, evidence of what we would call civilization. What changed in the species at that point? Did they just get smarter (even if their brains didn't suddenly get larger)? Did they develop language all of a sudden? Did they become smarter because of the intellectual advantages that language affords (such as the ability to maintain an oral history over generations)? If this is when they developed language, were they changing from no language to modern language, or perhaps from 'protolanguage' to modern language? And if the latter, when did 'protolanguage' emerge? Did our cousins the Neanderthals speak a protolanguage? At the moment, we don't know.

One tantalizing source of evidence has emerged recently. A mutation in a gene called FOXP2 has been shown to lead to deficits in language as well as in control of the face and mouth. This gene is a slightly altered version of a gene found in apes, and it seems to have achieved its present form between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. It is very tempting therefore to call FOXP2 a 'language gene', but nearly everyone regards this as oversimplified. Are individuals afflicted with this mutation really languageimpaired or do they just have trouble speaking? On top of that, despite great advances in neuroscience, we currently know very little about how genes determine the growth and structure of brains or how the structure of the brain determines the ability to use language. Nevertheless, if we are ever going to learn more about how the human language ability evolved, the most promising evidence will probably come from the human genome, which preserves so much of our species' history. The challenge for the future will be to decode it.

For further information

Christiansen, Morton H. and Simon Kirby (eds.). 2003. Language Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hauser, Marc Noam Chomsky and W. Tecumseh Fitch. 2002. The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science 298.1569-79.

Hurford, James Michael Studdert-Kennedy and Chris Knight (eds.). 1998. Approaches to the Evolution of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jackendoff, Ray. 1999. Some possible stages in the evolution of the language capacity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3.272-79.

Pinker, Steven, and Ray Jackendoff. 2005. The faculty of language: What's special about it? Cognition 95.210-36.


Royal line

Researchers believe that Scotland's location could be a factor in the "astonishing and unique" origins of people from the country.

In a statement, Dr Wilson and Mr Moffat said: "Perhaps geography, Scotland's place at the farthest north-western end of the European peninsula, is the reason for great diversity.

"For many thousands of years, migrants could move no further west. Scotland was the end of many journeys."

Scotland's DNA also found that more than 1% of all Scotsmen are direct descendants of the Berber and Tuareg tribesmen of the Sahara, a lineage which is around 5600 years old.

Royal Stewart DNA was confirmed in 15% of male participants with the Stewart surname. They are directly descended from the royal line of kings.

Scientists believe comedian and presenter Fred MacAuley's ancestors were slaves, sold at the great slave market in Dublin in the 9th Century, despite his name suggesting a Viking heritage.

They said MacAuley's slave ancestor was taken by ship to the Hebrides and had an affair with his owner's wife, thereby intruding DNA into the MacAulay line.

Scotland's DNA will soon be renamed Britain's DNA as the project aims to widen its genetic study to include the English, Welsh and Irish.


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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”


Neanderthals, humans may have longer history of mating

Neanderthals and modern humans may have interbred much earlier than thought, with ancient liaisons potentially taking place in the Middle East, researchers say.

This finding supports the idea that some modern humans left Africa long before the ancestors of modern Europeans and Asians migrated out of Africa, scientists added.

The Neanderthals were once the closest relatives of modern humans, living in Europe and Asia until they went extinct about 40,000 years ago. Scientists recently discovered that Neanderthals and modern humans once interbred nowadays, about 1.5 to 2.1 percent of DNA in people outside Africa is Neanderthal in origin. Last week, researchers reported that the genetic legacy of the Neanderthal has had a subtle but significant impact on modern human health, influencing risks for depression, heart attacks, nicotine addiction, obesity and other problems.

Based on the fossil record, Neanderthals diverged from modern humans at least 430,000 years ago. Previous analysis of a Neanderthal genome from a cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia suggests the two lineages diverged between about 550,000 to 765,000 years ago. Subsequent research suggested that interbreeding led Neanderthals to contribute genetic material to modern humans outside Africa about 47,000 to 65,000 years ago. [In Photos: Neanderthal Burials Uncovered]

Now researchers find there may have also been gene flow in the opposite direction, from modern humans to Neanderthals. These findings suggest that modern humans and Neanderthals may have met and interbred about 100,000 years ago, much earlier than thought.

"We find a rather ancient signal of gene flow from modern humans into the ancestors of Neanderthals from the Altai Mountains in Siberia, suggesting that early modern humans had already migrated out of Africa by the time Neanderthals from Europe moved eastward," said study co-author Sergi Castellano, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

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The scientists analyzed the genome of a Neanderthal from the Altai Mountains, as well as DNA from two other Neanderthals, one from Spain and one from Croatia. They also scanned the genomes of two modern humans, as well as one from a Denisovan, an extinct human lineage related to Neanderthals whose fossils were also discovered in the Altai Mountains.

DNA from this 40,000-year-old modern human jawbone reveals the man had a Neanderthal ancestor as recently as four to six generations ago. © MPI f. Evolutionary Anthropology/ Pääbo

The researchers found that a group of modern humans contributed DNA to the ancestors of Neanderthals from Altai about 100,000 years ago. In contrast, they did not see this genetic contribution in Neanderthals in Europe, nor in the Denisovan genome.

The scientists noted that the modern human DNA found in the Altai Neanderthals came from a group that diverged from other modern human populations about 200,000 years ago, about the same time the ancestors of present-day African populations separated from one another. The modern human group that interbred with the Altai Neanderthals apparently later went extinct, and are not among the ancestors of present-day people outside Africa, who left that continent about 65,000 years ago, the researchers said.

Castellano and his colleagues speculated that the episode of interbreeding they detected may have occurred in the Levant, the eastern Mediterranean region that includes Israel and Syria. Previous research suggested that modern humans and Neanderthals were present in the Levant as early as 120,000 years ago. Another potential location for this interbreeding was Southern Arabia and the area around the Persian Gulf, they added.

"The exact place where the gene flow occurred is not settled, but the Near East fits the fossil evidence we currently have," Castellano told Live Science.

The scientists detailed their findings in the Feb. 18 issue of the journal Nature.


Neanderthal Genes Hint at Much Earlier Human Migration From Africa

Modern humans may have left the continent as long as 200,000 years ago, a new analysis suggests.

In recent years, millions of people have been astonished, even thrilled, to learn from those popular genetic tests that their DNA is laced with Neanderthal genes.

Those genes were first discovered in 2010, in a study of Neanderthal fossils. From DNA recovered from the bones, researchers deduced that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals some 60,000 years ago, after leaving Africa.

As a result, the genes of non-Africans today are 1 percent to 2 percent Neanderthal. People of African ancestry, it was thought, have little to no Neanderthal DNA.

Using a new method to analyze DNA, however, a team of scientists has found evidence that significantly reshapes that narrative.

Their study, published on Thursday in the journal Cell, concludes that a wave of modern humans departed Africa far earlier than had been known: some 200,000 years ago.

These people interbred with Neanderthals, the new study suggests. As a result, Neanderthals were already carrying genes from modern humans when the next big migration from Africa occurred, about 140,000 years later.

The scientists also found evidence that people living somewhere in western Eurasia moved back to Africa and interbred with people whose ancestors never left. The new study suggests that all Africans have a substantially greater amount of Neanderthal DNA than earlier estimates.

“The legacy of gene flow with Neanderthals likely exists in all modern humans, highlighting our shared history,” the authors concluded.

“Overall, I find this a fantastic study,” said Omer Gokcumen, a geneticist at the University at Buffalo, who was not involved in the research. The research offers a view of human history “almost as a spider web of interactions, rather than a tree with distinct branches.”

But while evidence has been building that modern humans left Africa in waves, and that those migrations began much earlier than once thought, some scientists disputed the evidence that people of African descent may be carrying Neanderthal genes.

David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, praised much of the study but said he had doubts about how extensive the flow of DNA back to Africa could have been. “It looks like this is a really weak signal,” he said of the data.

The ancestors of humans and Neanderthals lived about 600,000 years ago in Africa. The Neanderthal lineage left the continent the fossils of what we describe as Neanderthals range from 200,000 years to 40,000 years in age, and are found in Europe, the Near East and Siberia.

Despite their reputation as brutes, Neanderthals showed signs of remarkable mental sophistication. They were adept hunters, and appear to have made ornaments as a form of self-expression.

Ten years ago, Dr. Reich and his colleagues gathered enough bits of DNA from fossils to create the first rough draft of the Neanderthal genome.

When the researchers compared it to the genomes of eight living people, they found that the Neanderthal was a little more similar to the people of Asian and European descent than to those of African heritage.

Roughly 60,000 years ago, the researchers argued, modern humans must have expanded from Africa and interbred with Neanderthals. The hybrid descendants passed their genes to later generations, who spread around the globe.

That hypothesis has held up well over the past decade, as paleoanthropologists have extracted more complete Neanderthal genomes from other fossils.

But Joshua Akey, a geneticist at Princeton University who carried out some of these studies, grew dissatisfied with the methods used to look for Neanderthal DNA in living people. The standard method was built on the assumption that most Africans had no Neanderthal DNA at all.

Dr. Akey and his colleagues figured out a new method, which they call IBDMix, that takes advantage of the fact that relatives share stretches of matching DNA.

Siblings, for example, share many long, identical stretches of DNA. But their children will have fewer identical segments, which will also be shorter. Distantly related cousins will have tinier matching segments that require sophisticated methods to uncover.

Dr. Akey and his colleagues figured out how to search the DNA of living humans and remains of Neanderthals for these minuscule matching segments. Then they pinpointed the segments that came from a relatively recent ancestor — and therefore were a sign of interbreeding.

The scientists searched 2,504 genomes of living humans for segments that matched those in a Neanderthal genome. When the scientists tallied up the results, the results took Dr. Akey by surprise.

The human genome is detailed in units called base pairs, about 3 billion such pairs in total. The scientists found that Europeans on average had 51 million base pairs that matched Neanderthal DNA, and East Asians had 55 million.

Dr. Akey’s previous research had indicated that East Asians carried far more Neanderthal ancestry than did Europeans.

Africans on average had 17 million base pairs that matched Neanderthal DNA — far higher than predicted by the original models describing how humans and Neanderthals interbred.

“That was just so completely opposite to my expectations,” said Dr. Akey. “It took a while to convince ourselves that what we are finding with this new approach was actually true.

Looking at the size of these shared segments and how common they were around the world, Dr. Akey and his colleagues realized that some were the result of interbreeding very early in human history.

They concluded that a group of modern humans expanded out of Africa perhaps 200,000 years ago and interbred with Neanderthals. Those modern humans then disappeared. But Neanderthals who lived after that disappearance inherited some modern human DNA.

Other experts said the new study offered compelling support for earlier hints for this ancient expansion. Last year, for example, a team of scientists reported finding a modern human skull in Greece dating back over 210,000 years.

Other researchers discovered small fragments of DNA in Neanderthal fossils that showed a striking similarity to modern human genes.

Despite his hesitation over the analysis of African DNA, Dr. Reich said the new findings do make a strong case that modern humans departed Africa much earlier than thought.

“I was on the fence about that, but this paper makes me think it’s right,” he said.

It’s possible that humans and Neanderthals interbred at other times, and not just 200,000 years ago and again 60,000 years ago. But Dr. Akey said that these two migrations accounted for the vast majority of mixed DNA in the genomes of living humans and Neanderthal fossils.

In recent years, Dr. Reich and other researchers have found evidence that ancient people from the Near East moved back into Africa in the past few thousand years and spread their DNA to many African populations.

Dr. Akey and his colleagues confirmed this migration, although their study suggests that it may have taken place over a much longer period of time and introduced much more DNA into populations across the continent.

Janet Kelso of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who was not involved in the study, found this conclusion “quite convincing.”

The findings may allow researchers to begin pinpointing segments of Neanderthal DNA in living Africans.

Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania, is doing just that, using the new methods to look for Neanderthal DNA in more Africans to test Dr. Akey’s hypothesis.

Still, she wonders how Neanderthal DNA could have spread between populations scattered across the entire continent.


Transmission of language and culture

Language is transmitted culturally that is, it is learned. To a lesser extent it is taught, when parents, for example, deliberately encourage their children to talk and to respond to talk, correct their mistakes, and enlarge their vocabulary. But it must be emphasized that children very largely acquire their first language by “grammar construction” from exposure to a random collection of utterances that they encounter. What is classed as language teaching in school either relates to second-language acquisition or, insofar as it concerns the pupils’ first language, is in the main directed at reading and writing, the study of literature, formal grammar, and alleged standards of correctness, which may not be those of all the pupils’ regional or social dialects. All of what goes under the title of language teaching at school presupposes and relies on the prior knowledge of a first language in its basic vocabulary and essential structure, acquired before school age.

If language is transmitted as part of culture, it is no less true that culture as a whole is transmitted very largely through language, insofar as it is explicitly taught. The fact that humankind has a history in the sense that animals do not is entirely the result of language. So far as researchers can tell, animals learn through spontaneous imitation or through imitation taught by other animals. This does not exclude the performance of quite complex and substantial pieces of cooperative physical work, such as a beaver’s dam or an ant’s nest, nor does it preclude the intricate social organization of some species, such as bees. But it does mean that changes in organization and work will be the gradual result of mutation cumulatively reinforced by survival value those groups whose behaviour altered in any way that increased their security from predators or from famine would survive in greater numbers than others. This would be an extremely slow process, comparable to the evolution of the different species themselves.

There is no reason to believe that animal behaviour has materially altered during the period available for the study of human history—say, the last 5,000 years or so—except, of course, when human intervention by domestication or other forms of interference has itself brought about such alterations. Nor do members of the same species differ markedly in behaviour over widely scattered areas, again apart from differences resulting from human interference. Bird songs are reported to differ somewhat from place to place within species, but there is little other evidence for areal divergence. In contrast to this unity of animal behaviour, human cultures are as divergent as are human languages over the world, and they can and do change all the time, sometimes with great rapidity, as among the industrialized countries of the 21st century.

The processes of linguistic change and its consequences will be treated below. Here, cultural change in general and its relation to language will be considered. By far the greatest part of learned behaviour, which is what culture involves, is transmitted by vocal instruction, not by imitation. Some imitation is clearly involved, especially in infancy, in the learning process, but proportionately this is hardly significant.

Through the use of language, any skills, techniques, products, modes of social control, and so on can be explained, and the end results of anyone’s inventiveness can be made available to anyone else with the intellectual ability to grasp what is being said. Spoken language alone would thus vastly extend the amount of usable information in any human community and speed up the acquisition of new skills and the adaptation of techniques to changed circumstances or new environments. With the invention and diffusion of writing, this process widened immediately, and the relative permanence of writing made the diffusion of information still easier. Printing and the increase in literacy only further intensified this process. Modern techniques for broadcast or almost instantaneous transmission of communication all over the globe, together with the tools for rapidly translating between the languages of the world, have made it possible for usable knowledge of all sorts to be made accessible to people almost anywhere in the world. This accounts for the great rapidity of scientific, technological, political, and social change in the contemporary world. All of this, whether ultimately for the good or ill of humankind, must be attributed to the dominant role of language in the transmission of culture.


Africans carry surprising amount of Neanderthal DNA

For 10 years, geneticists have told the story of how Neanderthals—or at least their DNA sequences—live on in today’s Europeans, Asians, and their descendants. Not so in Africans, the story goes, because modern humans and our extinct cousins interbred only outside of Africa. A new study overturns that notion, revealing an unexpectedly large amount of Neanderthal ancestry in modern populations across Africa. It suggests much of that DNA came from Europeans migrating back into Africa over the past 20,000 years.

“That gene flow with Neanderthals exists in all modern humans, inside and outside of Africa, is a novel and elegant finding,” says anthropologist Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. The work, reported in this week’s issue of Cell, could also help clear up a mysterious disparity: why East Asians appear to have more Neanderthal ancestry than Europeans.

As members of Homo sapiens spread from Africa into Eurasia some 70,000 years ago, they met and mingled with Neanderthals. Researchers knew that later back-migrations of Europeans had introduced a bit of Neanderthal DNA into African populations, but previous work suggested it was a just a smidgen. In contrast, modern Europeans and East Asians apparently inherited about 2% of their DNA from Neanderthals.

Previous efforts simply assumed that Africans largely lacked Neanderthal DNA. To get more reliable numbers, Princeton University evolutionary biologist Joshua Akey compared the genome of a Neanderthal from Russia’s Altai region in Siberia, sequenced in 2013, to 2504 modern genomes uploaded to the 1000 Genomes Project, a catalog of genomes from around the world that includes five African subpopulations. The researchers then calculated the probability that each stretch of DNA was inherited from a Neanderthal ancestor.

The researchers found that African individuals on average had significantly more Neanderthal DNA than previously thought—about 17 megabases (Mb) worth, or 0.3% of their genome. They also found signs that a handful of Neanderthal genes may have been selected for after they entered Africans’ genomes, including genes that boost immune function and protect against ultraviolet radiation.

The results jibe with as-yet-unpublished work by Sarah Tishkoff, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania. She told Science she has also found higher-than-expected levels of apparent Neanderthal DNA in Africans.

The best fit model for where Africans got all this Neanderthal DNA suggests about half of it came when Europeans—who had Neanderthal DNA from previous matings—migrated back to Africa in the past 20,000 years. The model suggests the rest of the DNA shared by Africans and the Altai Neanderthal might not be Neanderthal at all: Instead, it may be DNA from early modern humans that was simply retained in both Africans and Eurasians—and was picked up by Neanderthals, perhaps when moderns made a failed migration from Africa to the Middle East more than 100,000 years ago.

Akey’s study might help explain another “head scratcher,” says computer biologist Kelley Harris of the University of Washington, Seattle. Studies had suggested East Asians have 20% more Neanderthal DNA than Europeans, she notes. “Europe is where Neanderthal remains are found, so why wouldn’t Europeans have more Neanderthal ancestry than any other group?”

By suggesting that Europeans introduced Neanderthal sequences into Africa, the new study points to an explanation: Researchers previously assumed that Neanderthal sequences shared by Europeans and Africans were modern and subtracted them out. After correcting for that bias, the new study found similar amounts of Neanderthal DNA in Europeans and Asians—51 and 55 Mb, respectively. It’s a “convincing and elegant” explanation, Harris says.


Ten Things Archaeology Tells Us about Neanderthals

Rebecca Wragg Sykes is an archaeologist and author of the critically acclaimed bestseller Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art . An honorary fellow at the University of Liverpool, she is also a cofounder of TrowelBlazers , an online resource highlighting the role of women in archaeology and the earth sciences.

Image description: A woman with short, dark hair and glasses is wearing a blue turtleneck shirt. In the background, there is a cave opening that looks out onto green land with mountains and the sky on the horizon. Around the cave mouth are silhouettes of figures depicting Neanderthals. Charlotte Corden

When they were first discovered in 1856, Neanderthals were a scientific sensation, and in many ways they’re still leaving us surprised and fascinated over 160 years later. Today, the field of ancient genetics has transformed our understanding of early human history and the Neanderthals, but archaeology has been undergoing its own quiet revolution. In the past three decades, advances in methods from excavation to analysis have painted a captivating fresh portrait of these, our closest relatives. Here are 10 things we’ve learned.

1. Neanderthals were survivors. Back in the 1850s, nobody was sure how long ago Neanderthals had lived, other than the fact they had existed alongside species now vanished from Europe, such as reindeer, and long-extinct beasts like woolly rhinoceros. Once means for directly dating archaeological sites were developed, the true chronology of Neanderthals became clear. They emerged as an anatomically distinctive population around 350,000 years ago, and what’s more, between that point and their vanishing from the record around 40,000 years ago, they survived six global climate cycles. Far from arctic environment specialists, they preferred to avoid extreme cold, and should equally be thought of as adapted to steppe-tundra, forest, and coasts, spreading all the way from Wales to Palestine, through into Central Asia and Siberia .

2. They weren’t stuck in a big game rut. Theories that perhaps Neanderthals vanished because they were poor hunters have abounded. Yet evidence from close study of animal bones, chemical analysis, and microremains in sediment or even their own dental calculus shows they were highly flexible in dietary terms. They took the best of whatever was in the environments around them. That included tackling megafauna like mammoth, medium-sized prey, such as deer, and even small game and shoreline resources. Mediterranean Neanderthals even had a particular way of roasting tortoise. But plants were also on the menu, whether tubers like waterlily roots or seeds and fruits, some of which needed cooking.

3. Neanderthals were artisans and innovators. Notions that Neanderthals were inherently unsophisticated and lived in a state of technological stasis persist. But careful study and new finds confirm they mastered many methods for taking apart stone, had varied cultures across time and space, and skillfully worked wood , shell , and even bone. Remarkably, they also produced the first synthetic material: birch tar. Neanderthals in what is today Italy, even invented another adhesive for multipart tools by mixing pine resin and beeswax .

4. Home was where the hearth is. Remarkable twenty-first century excavation methods allow us to pick apart Neanderthal living sites in mind-boggling detail. Archaeologists might only trowel away a few centimeters in a field season, but these can contain centuries of occupation. By recording the spatial positions in 3D, then digitally or manually refitting fragments of stone and bone back together, different sub-layers and activity areas can be identified . Sediment analysis reveals midden zones, multiphase hearth fires, and even the potential use of animal hide mats. It’s in Neanderthal sites that we see the emergence of human hearth-centered living.

5. Neanderthals talked to each other. Recent research shows that Neanderthal voice boxes could make similar sounds to ours, and their inner ears were tuned into the same frequencies : speech. But genetic studies suggest subtle differences, meaning that the cognitive foundation and expression underlying their language was not the same. What might they have talked about? Perhaps stone and seasons, animal and plant lore. Shared memories woven together may have become the first hearthside tales.

6. They lived in small populations (mostly). Modern archaeological research has picked away at one of the trickier problems in understanding Neanderthals: How many of them lived together? High resolution sites (where sediments accumulated slowly and short occupations can be discerned) confirm that groups likely contained no more than 20 individuals, and sometimes split up to go off into the landscape. But DNA shows that they weren’t all genetically inbred , and persistent long-distance stone movements point to territories covering hundreds of kilometers.

7. There was such a thing as Neanderthal aesthetics. A growing body of evidence supported by meticulous analysis indicates that Neanderthals sometimes engaged with materials in ways that have no clear function. This includes altering surfaces by carefully incising lines on bones and applying mineral pigments, sometimes mixed in recipes with other things like sparkly fool’s gold (iron pyrite). When we see pigments being used on unusual objects like fossil shells and raptor talons , it’s a strong indication that Neanderthals possessed a proto-aesthetic sense.

8. Aggression was not the basis of their society. Assumptions that Neanderthals were by nature violent are not reflected in their bones or the archaeology. Hunting must have been collaborative, and the spoils were systematically butchered and transported elsewhere to waiting mouths. In some places it’s even possible to see hints of resources being shared between hearths. Without intense competition over food, Neanderthal social groups were more likely based around close friendships, and perhaps open to meeting strangers.

9. Neanderthals had different ways of dealing with the dead. Debates over possible Neanderthal burials have existed since the early twentieth century, but a combination of revisting old collections and excavating new skeletons has today’s archaeologists homing in on two facts: First, it does appear that entire bodies were sometimes deposited, including in shallow pits . But even more interesting, Neanderthals were taking apart the bodies of the dead, sometimes consuming them even where food was abundant, and using bones as tools. In one case, incising a skull with more than 30 tiny lines that have no practical explanation.

10. We met them, many times. One of the greatest revolutions in our knowledge of Neanderthals—that they did not entirely vanish—came with the first sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2010 . A decade on, archaeology has revealed greater complexity. Early Homo sapiens were in Eurasia well before 100,000 years ago (Australia by 65,000 years ago), and further DNA samples and genetic analyses reveal multiple phases of interbreeding over this huge span of time, not just with Neanderthals, but with other hominins, including the little-known Denisovans. So unlike many of the first H. sapiens explorers who left no DNA traces in people today, the Neanderthals’ bodies and way of life may have disappeared, but their genetic legacy lives on.

Cite as: Wragg Sykes, Rebecca. 2021. “Ten Things Archaeology Tells Us about Neanderthals.” Anthropology News website, March 1, 2021. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1588


The Kekulé Problem

Cormac McCarthy is best known to the world as a writer of novels. These include Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague and thought of in complementary terms. An aficionado on subjects ranging from the history of mathematics, philosophical arguments relating to the status of quantum mechanics as a causal theory, comparative evidence bearing on non-human intelligence, and the nature of the conscious and unconscious mind. At SFI we have been searching for the expression of these scientific interests in his novels and we maintain a furtive tally of their covert manifestations and demonstrations in his prose.

Over the last two decades Cormac and I have been discussing the puzzles and paradoxes of the unconscious mind. Foremost among them, the fact that the very recent and “uniquely” human capability of near infinite expressive power arising through a combinatorial grammar is built on the foundations of a far more ancient animal brain. How have these two evolutionary systems become reconciled? Cormac expresses this tension as the deep suspicion, perhaps even contempt, that the primeval unconscious feels toward the upstart, conscious language. In this article Cormac explores this idea through processes of dream and infection. It is a discerning and wide-ranging exploration of ideas and challenges that our research community has only recently dared to start addressing through complexity science.

—David Krakauer
President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems, Santa Fe Institute

I call it the Kekulé Problem because among the myriad instances of scientific problems solved in the sleep of the inquirer Kekulé’s is probably the best known. He was trying to arrive at the configuration of the benzene molecule and not making much progress when he fell asleep in front of the fire and had his famous dream of a snake coiled in a hoop with its tail in its mouth—the ouroboros of mythology—and woke exclaiming to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.” Well. The problem of course—not Kekulé’s but ours—is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesnt it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” To which our scientist might respond: “Okay. Got it. Thanks.”

Why the snake? That is, why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.

A logical place to begin would be to define what the unconscious is in the first place. To do this we have to set aside the jargon of modern psychology and get back to biology. The unconscious is a biological system before it is anything else. To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.

All animals have an unconscious. If they didnt they would be plants. We may sometimes credit ours with duties it doesnt actually perform. Systems at a certain level of necessity may require their own mechanics of governance. Breathing, for instance, is not controlled by the unconscious but by the pons and the medulla oblongata, two systems located in the brainstem. Except of course in the case of cetaceans, who have to breathe when they come up for air. An autonomous system wouldnt work here. The first dolphin anesthetized on an operating table simply died. (How do they sleep? With half of their brain alternately.) But the duties of the unconscious are beyond counting. Everything from scratching an itch to solving math problems.

Did language meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it.

Problems in general are often well posed in terms of language and language remains a handy tool for explaining them. But the actual process of thinking—in any discipline—is largely an unconscious affair. Language can be used to sum up some point at which one has arrived—a sort of milepost—so as to gain a fresh starting point. But if you believe that you actually use language in the solving of problems I wish that you would write to me and tell me how you go about it.

I’ve pointed out to some of my mathematical friends that the unconscious appears to be better at math than they are. My friend George Zweig calls this the Night Shift. Bear in mind that the unconscious has no pencil or notepad and certainly no eraser. That it does solve problems in mathematics is indisputable. How does it go about it? When I’ve suggested to my friends that it may well do it without using numbers, most of them thought—after a while—that this was a possibility. How, we dont know. Just as we dont know how it is that we manage to talk. If I am talking to you then I can hardly be crafting at the same time the sentences that are to follow what I am now saying. I am totally occupied in talking to you. Nor can some part of my mind be assembling these sentences and then saying them to me so that I can repeat them. Aside from the fact that I am busy this would be to evoke an endless regress. The truth is that there is a process here to which we have no access. It is a mystery opaque to total blackness.

There are influential persons among us—of whom a bit more a bit later—who claim to believe that language is a totally evolutionary process. That it has somehow appeared in the brain in a primitive form and then grown to usefulness. Somewhat like vision, perhaps. But vision we now know is traceable to perhaps as many as a dozen quite independent evolutionary histories. Tempting material for the teleologists. These stories apparently begin with a crude organ capable of perceiving light where any occlusion could well suggest a predator. Which actually makes it an excellent scenario for Darwinian selection. It may be that the influential persons imagine all mammals waiting for language to appear. I dont know. But all indications are that language has appeared only once and in one species only. Among whom it then spread with considerable speed.

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There are a number of examples of signaling in the animal world that might be taken for a proto-language. Chipmunks—among other species—have one alarm-call for aerial predators and another for those on the ground. Hawks as distinct from foxes or cats. Very useful. But what is missing here is the central idea of language—that one thing can be another thing. It is the idea that Helen Keller suddenly understood at the well. That the sign for water was not simply what you did to get a glass of water. It was the glass of water. It was in fact the water in the glass. This in the play The Miracle Worker. Not a dry eye in the house.

The invention of language was understood at once to be incredibly useful. Again, it seems to have spread through the species almost instantaneously. The immediate problem would seem to have been that there were more things to name than sounds to name them with. Language appears to have originated in southwestern Africa and it may even be that the clicks in the Khoisan languages—to include Sandawe and Hadza—are an atavistic remnant of addressing this need for a greater variety of sounds. The vocal problems were eventually handled evolutionarily—and apparently in fairly short order—by turning our throat over largely to the manufacture of speech. Not without cost, as it turns out. The larynx has moved down in the throat in such a way as to make us as a species highly vulnerable to choking on our food—a not uncommon cause of death. It’s also left us as the only mammal incapable of swallowing and vocalizing at the same time.

The sort of isolation that gave us tall and short and light and dark and other variations in our species was no protection against the advance of language. It crossed mountains and oceans as if they werent there. Did it meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it. But useful? Oh yes. We might further point out that when it arrived it had no place to go. The brain was not expecting it and had made no plans for its arrival. It simply invaded those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated. I suggested once in conversation at the Santa Fe Institute that language had acted very much like a parasitic invasion and David Krakauer—our president—said that the same idea had occurred to him. Which pleased me a good deal because David is very smart. This is not to say of course that the human brain was not in any way structured for the reception of language. Where else would it go? If nothing else we have the evidence of history. The difference between the history of a virus and that of language is that the virus has arrived by way of Darwinian selection and language has not. The virus comes nicely machined. Offer it up. Turn it slightly. Push it in. Click. Nice fit. But the scrap heap will be found to contain any number of viruses that did not fit.

ON THE ORIGIN OF LANGUAGE: “So what are we saying here?” writes Cormac McCarthy. “That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing.” (Above, a reproduction of a fresco in the Chauvet Cave, site of evocative prehistoric paintings.) JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images

There is no selection at work in the evolution of language because language is not a biological system and because there is only one of them. The ur-language of linguistic origin out of which all languages have evolved.

Influential persons will by now of course have smiled to themselves at the ill-concealed Lamarckianism lurking here. We might think to evade it by various strategies or redefinitions but probably without much success. Darwin of course was dismissive of the idea of inherited “mutilations”—the issue of cutting off the tails of dogs for instance. But the inheritance of ideas remains something of a sticky issue. It is difficult to see them as anything other than acquired. How the unconscious goes about its work is not so much poorly understood as not understood at all. It is an area pretty much ignored by the artificial intelligence studies, which seem mostly devoted to analytics and to the question of whether the brain is like a computer. They have decided that it’s not, but that is not altogether true.

Of the known characteristics of the unconscious its persistence is among the most notable. Everyone is familiar with repetitive dreams. Here the unconscious may well be imagined to have more than one voice: He’s not getting it, is he? No. He’s pretty thick. What do you want to do? I dont know. Do you want to try using his mother? His mother is dead. What difference does that make?

To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.

What is at work here? And how does the unconscious know we’re not getting it? What doesnt it know? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us. (Moral compulsion? Is he serious?)

The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.

All very quickly. There are no languages whose form is in a state of development. And their forms are all basically the same.

We dont know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be. Recent animal brain studies showing outsized cerebellums in some pretty smart species are suggestive. That facts about the world are in themselves capable of shaping the brain is slowly becoming accepted. Does the unconscious only get these facts from us, or does it have the same access to our sensorium that we have? You can do whatever you like with the us and the our and the we. I did. At some point the mind must grammaticize facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We have to do that.

So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing. Yes. Of course that’s what we are saying. Except that he didnt say it because there was no language for him to say it in. For the time being he had to settle for just thinking it. And when did this take place? Our influential persons claim to have no idea. Of course they dont think that it took place at all. But aside from that. One hundred thousand years ago? Half a million? Longer? Actually a hundred thousand would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics—found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. These scratchings have everything to do with our chap waking up in his cave. For while it is fairly certain that art preceded language it probably didnt precede it by much. Some influential persons have actually claimed that language could be up to a million years old. They havent explained what we have been doing with it all this time. What we do know—pretty much without question—is that once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. From using colored pebbles for the trading of goats to art and language and on to using symbolic marks to represent pieces of the world too small to see.

One hundred thousand years is pretty much an eyeblink. But two million years is not. This is, rather loosely, the length of time in which our unconscious has been organizing and directing our lives. And without language you will note. At least for all but that recent blink. How does it tell us where and when to scratch? We dont know. We just know that it’s good at it. But the fact that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether—even where they would appear to be quite useful—suggests rather strongly that it doesnt much like language and even that it doesnt trust it. And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that it has been getting along quite well without it for a couple of million years?

Apart from its great antiquity the picture-story mode of presentation favored by the unconscious has the appeal of its simple utility. A picture can be recalled in its entirety whereas an essay cannot. Unless one is an Asperger’s case. In which event memories, while correct, suffer from their own literalness. The log of knowledge or information contained in the brain of the average citizen is enormous. But the form in which it resides is largely unknown. You may have read a thousand books and be able to discuss any one of them without remembering a word of the text.

When you pause to reflect and say: “Let me see. How can I put this,” your aim is to resurrect an idea from this pool of we-know-not-what and give it a linguistic form so that it can be expressed. It is the this that one wishes to put that is representative of this pool of knowledge whose form is so amorphous. If you explain this to someone and they say that they dont understand you may well seize your chin and think some more and come up with another way to “put” it. Or you may not. When the physicist Dirac was complained to by students that they didnt understand what he’d said Dirac would simply repeat it verbatim.

The picture-story lends itself to parable. To the tale whose meaning gives one pause. The unconscious is concerned with rules but these rules will require your cooperation. The unconscious wants to give guidance to your life in general but it doesnt care what toothpaste you use. And while the path which it suggests for you may be broad it doesnt include going over a cliff. We can see this in dreams. Those disturbing dreams which wake us from sleep are purely graphic. No one speaks. These are very old dreams and often troubling. Sometimes a friend can see their meaning where we cannot. The unconscious intends that they be difficult to unravel because it wants us to think about them. To remember them. It doesnt say that you cant ask for help. Parables of course often want to resolve themselves into the pictorial. When you first heard of Plato’s cave you set about reconstructing it.

To repeat. The unconscious is a biological operative and language is not. Or not yet. You have to be careful about inviting Descartes to the table. Aside from inheritability probably the best guide as to whether a category is of our own devising is to ask if we see it in other creatures. The case for language is pretty clear. In the facility with which young children learn its complex and difficult rules we see the slow incorporation of the acquired.

I’d been thinking about the Kekulé problem off and on for a couple of years without making much progress. Then one morning after George Zweig and I had had one of our ten hour lunches I came down in the morning with the wastebasket from my bedroom and as I was emptying it into the kitchen trash I suddenly knew the answer. Or I knew that I knew the answer. It took me a minute or so to put it together. I reflected that while George and I had spent the first couple of hours at cognition and neuroscience we had not talked about Kekulé and the problem. But something in our conversation might very well have triggered our reflections—mine and those of the Night Shift—on this issue. The answer of course is simple once you know it. The unconscious is just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break. When later I told George what I’d come up with he mulled it over for a minute or so and then nodded and said: “That sounds about right.” Which pleased me a good deal because George is very smart.

The unconscious seems to know a great deal. What does it know about itself? Does it know that it’s going to die? What does it think about that? It appears to represent a gathering of talents rather than just one. It seems unlikely that the itch department is also in charge of math. Can it work on a number of problems at once? Does it only know what we tell it? Or—more plausibly—has it direct access to the outer world? Some of the dreams which it is at pains to assemble for us are no doubt deeply reflective and yet some are quite frivolous. And the fact that it appears to be less than insistent upon our remembering every dream suggests that sometimes it may be working on itself. And is it really so good at solving problems or is it just that it keeps its own counsel about the failures? How does it have this understanding which we might well envy? How might we make inquiries of it? Are you sure?

Cormac McCarthy is a board member and senior fellow of the Santa Fe Institute.


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