April 15, 2011

Language - Its Origins And Evolution

Modern language and speech can be traced back to the last common ancestor we shared with the Neandertals roughly half a million years ago, according to new research. (Credit: © procy_ab / Fotolia)

UPDATE:  On the Antiquity of Language: The Reinterpretation of Neandertal Linguistic Capacities and Its Consequences by Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson, Frontiers in Psychology, July 6, 2013, Volume 4, Article 397, Pages 1-17.  Synopsis:  Neandertals Shared Speech and Language With Modern Humans, Study Says, Science Daily, Science News, July 9, 2013.

On the Antiquity of Language, Abstract:

“It is usually assumed that modern language is a recent phenomenon, coinciding with the emergence of modern humans themselves. Many assume as well that this is the result of a single, sudden mutation giving rise to the full 'modern package.' However, we argue here that recognizably modern language is likely an ancient feature of our genus predating at least the common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals about half a million years ago. To this end, we adduce a broad range of evidence from linguistics, genetics, paleontology, and archaeology clearly suggesting that Neandertals shared with us something like modern speech and language. This reassessment of the antiquity of modern language, from the usually quoted 50,000–100,000 years to half a million years, has profound consequences for our understanding of our own evolution in general and especially for the sciences of speech and language. As such, it argues against a saltationist scenario for the evolution of language, and toward a gradual process of culture-gene co-evolution extending to the present day. Another consequence is that the present-day linguistic diversity might better reflect the properties of the design space for language and not just the vagaries of history, and could also contain traces of the languages spoken by other human forms such as the Neandertals.”

Human language evolved from vocal call and alarm communications systems characteristic of most vertebrates, and virtually all mammals.  For Homo sapiens the emergence of complex symbolic language is increasingly being thought to have occurred about 100,000 years ago.

Selective pressure for language began on our ancestors' at the time of their entrance into a new eco-niche, the grasslands of east and southern Africa.  Selective pressures for complex vocal communication and symbolic thought also brought about changes in the structure and capabilities of the speech organs of our ancestors, namely the pharynx and tongue, and changes in the structure and functioning of parts of the brain that integrated visual images, labelling, remembered experience and mutually agreed upon vocalizations and non-vocal communication.  Exactly when the changes began and were completed is not known.

The Australopithecines, a group ancestral to genus Homo (sp.), may or may not have spoken a proto-language.  Most experts think they did not.  They think the first representatives of genus Homo, which emerged from one line of Australopithecines (A. afarensis?) about 2.5mya, were likely the first human ancestors to use language.  I think human language emerged earlier and gradually over a long period of time, as an elaboration of the vocal and gestural communication system characteristic of other primates, mammals and our proto-human ancestors, rather than a relatively sudden, from nothing to fully-fledged, emergence among Homo sapiens 100,000 years ago. 

The challenges of the more arduous environments of the East and Southern African grasslands presented selective pressures for a form of communication that was more complex than did the jungle and woodland environments of the ancestors and descendants of the chimpanzees and gorillas.  The result was an ability for more complex symbolic thought and a means of communication about matters distant in place and time, or in the abstract.  For example, life on the East African grasslands required being successful in hunting, finding, and stealing food from predators; as well as for planning and cooperation for mutual defence, and as protection from precarious fluctuations of food abundance and scarcity.  The set of ideas such as the location and behavior of prey, the location and growing habits of edible plants, and sources of water and shelter was crucial for survival in the savanna.

Food source knowledge, also an important characteristic of the ancestors of rain forest gorillas and woodland chimpanzees, was more complex in the new grassland eco-niche and consequently put greater selective pressure on our human ancestors in the areas of communication and symbolic thought.  Thus the emergence of complex language and symbolic thought in the evolution of our species facilitated, in turn, the emergence of Humankind's most successful adaptive mechanism.  This we know as culture - the ideas and understandings of a group of people that are crucial for survival and are transmitted from generation to generation by language.  The emergence of language and culture also facilitated increases in the complexity and effectiveness of technology.

Here is a report on a new article in Science on the origins of language:  Phonetic Clues Hint Language is Africa-Born by Nicolas Wade, The New York Times, April 15, 2011.  A graphic from the report:

© 2011 The New York Times

For further information on the origins and evolution of language see the following:

The Evolution of Human Speech:  Its Anatomical and Neural Bases by Philip Lieberman, Current Anthropology, 48(1), February 2007

On the Nature and Evolution of the Neural Bases of Human Language by Philip Lieberman, Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 45:36-62, 2002

Language Structures and Universal Truths Nature.com, April 13, 2011

Are Languages Structured by Culture and Cognition? Nature.com, April 13, 2011

Origin of Language, Wikipedia

Assyrian Dictionary, an encyclopedic dictionary of the language of the world's first empire; the language of the first known code of laws; the langauge of Gilgamesh, the first masterpiece of world literatiure; a language of early enterprize, commerce, irrigation, medicine; 2500BC to 100AD.

The Whole Truth - Are Human Beings Born to Lie?

Vanishing Languages by Russ Rymer, National Geographic, July 2012

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