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Origins of Language

  • Ancestral roots of human language in animal sounds: grunts, barks, whines

  • The language capacity is a product of natural selection, a successful adaptation taking place over the course of human evolution and providing its users with the survival advantages of communication and enhanced group cooperation (Lieberman)

  • 8-6 million years ago: humans split from chimpanzees; the vocal tract of chimpanzees is incapable of the articulation of the full range of sounds used by modern humans; e.g. chimp cannot raise tongue toward the roof of its mouth to articulate vowel sounds like "oo" and "ee" or cut off passage of air and make consonant sounds like "k" (Savage-Rumbaugh); but apes capable of learning sign language

  • 3.5 million years ago: African australopithecines, apelike vocal tract, could not speak, communicated by gestures and grunts (Ehrlich)

  • 2 million years ago: brain growth related to changes in diet (meat eating), beginning of the process of basicranial flexion which gradually led to longer pharynx and lower-positioned larynx necessary for the production of modern human speech sounds (Tattersall); Homo ergaster/archaic Homo erectus developed physical organs and mental capacity to produce a rough form of speech

  • 300,000 years ago: early Neanderthals still could not pronounce "ee" "oo" or "a" (as the vowel in "father")

  • 200,000 to 100,000 years ago: Homo sapiens; vocal tract capable of articulation of the full-range of sounds of human language; dietary diversification, including fish, shellfish and other marine food sources; brain lateralization and formation of language-capable brain structures

  • 100,000-70,000 years ago: birth of symbolic language and symbolic thought as we know them; evidence from archaeological sites like Blombos Cave in South Africa (Henschilwood)

  • Likely origin of all human languages in a single language (Proto-World), first spoken in Africa around 100,000-70,000 years ago

  • 50,000-40,000 years ago, Homo sapiens reaches Europe (Cro-Magnon culture); language-empowered modern humans gradually displaced (but also interbred with) Neanderthals

  • 32,000 years ago, earliest cave paintings and sculpture, clear evidence of symbolic thought and sophisticated language use

  • 28,000 years ago: Neanderthals extinct

  • 10,000 years ago, end of the Ice Age, development of agriculture and animal herding

  • 10,000-9,000 years ago, markings on clay tokens used in counting

  • 6,000-5,500 years ago, counting marks combined with more complex pictographs incised on clay

  • 5,300 years ago (3,300 BC), end of the Stone Age and Prehistory; beginnings of civilization and historical time; Sumerians develop writing in Mesopotamia

  • 5,200 years ago (3,200 BC), Egyptians also develop writing

  • 3,500 years ago (1,500 BC), earliest alphabetic writing emerges in the Middle East (Canaan and Sinai), likely origin of the later Phoenician, Greek and Roman alphabets

References & Links:

  • Christopher S. Henschilwood et al., "A 100,000 Year-Old Ochre-Processing Worshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa," Science 334 (2011): 219-222.
  • Ian Tattersal, The Monkey in the Mirror (2002)
  • Ian Tattersal, "How We Came to be Human," Scientific American, December 2001, pp. 56-63.
  • Paul Ehrlich (Stanford University), Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect (2000)
  • Philip Lieberman (Brown University), Eve Spoke: Human Language and Human Evolution (1998)
  • Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (Georgia State University)



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Last updated: 08/24/2014


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