Language - when did it begin?

18 Jul 2013

At www.geneticarchaeology.com/research/Did_Neandertals_have_language.asp ... we learn that research seems to suggest Neanderthals were very similar to modern humans, in a variety of ways. The idea Neanderthals, or Homo erectus come to that, were completely different to modern humans is all down to scholarly classification - which box, or museum drawer a particularly skull might be stored away. Classification led to the idea modern humans are in some way special, rather clever creatures and therefore quite unlike their forebears. So, now we have anthropologists expressing surprise about new research published in Frontiers of Language Sciences which says that not just Neanderthals (that's old hat now) but a common ancestor of both modern humans and the Neanderthals had language ability. Whilst this draws a line between the nasty brutish Ice Age folk, the Neanderthals, and the cultivated free speech of the more pristine modern species, one is left wondering why language is now pushed back to half a million years ago - if not more. These are of course uniformitarian numbers - but say them quickly and they don't have the same depth of meaning. Language has in effect being pushed back from 50,000 to 500,000 years ago after it was recognised that Neanderthals had all the requisites necessary for speech and communication. Therefore, the origin of that speech must precede the Neanderthals - simple really. More research is planned as they have realised that if modern humans coming out of Africa had brought language with them this might have differed from the language of the Neanderthals (developed in isolation) and this is theoretically testable - by comparing structured properties of African and non-African languages (and by computer simulation of how language may have spread).

None of this is really very surprising - but it does illustrate a mind block has been removed. We had a similar situation a couple of years ago when it was realised early humans were choosing which plants to munch on and which ones to avoid - and therefore food plant preference was much older than realised. In fact, most animals avoid certain plants (taste, texture, after-effect) so this is not even a particularly human trait. What is interesting though is that poisonous plants, the ones we learn to avoid, are not necessary something learned by relatively recent humans picking and eating at the forest edge but could go way back and the knowledge has simply been passed on from generation to generation - a bit like language in that respect.