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More Neanderthal News: FOXP2 and language

I've got a lot of curiosity when it comes to history and the history of the human species, so stories that pop up about Neanderthals always arouse my interest. Previously I have posted about the great likelihood that humans and Neanderthals lived side by side for a couple thousand years in Europe, and just last week there was some new information about Neanderthals. As The Register reports, it turns out that their version of the FOXP2 (info, more info) gene matches the human version. The Reg had picked up on this information via an interview with Dr. Paabo in the New York Times on 18 October. Some take-home points:

  • This pushes the date back for the mutation of FOXP2 into its human form from up to 200,000 years ago (with 50,000 years ago being the best guess by many) to at least 350,000 years ago, or the time of the evolutionary split between humans and Neanderthals. This is Big News.
  • It could have been contamination with human DNA. Both articles go into this problem in some detail. There were a number of checks put into the work by Paabo et al, and hopefully these measures were enough to ensure that there was no contamination.

It could have also been – through some freak chance – convergent evolution, and the same mutation developed separately in the two species, however even though it is my own idea, I don't think there's much chance of this being right 🙂 Of course FOXP2 cannot be the only contributory factor to our facility for speech. However, it is interesting to see more information is coming out about it, and about our relationship to Neanderthals.

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By Allyson Lister

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