THE ORIGIN OF SOUNDS, SPEECH & LANGUAGE
Most of evolution is about consensus over available evidence.
Hence, to pin point when our species actually started talking, we have to find out where archaeologists agree that we developed the necessary ‘ anatomic fixings’ for speech- such as a properly wired vocal tract (The vocal tract is the cavity in human beings where sound is produced and consists of the laryngeal cavity, the pharynx, the oral cavity, and the nasal cavity)
Many people believe that speech may have grown from ungrammatical, ‘natural’ gesturing. Communication expert Mike Beaken (1996) supports this claim by pointing out that two people who don’t share a common language “are forced to invent a visual system of communication for the exchange of essential messages.” He also points out that there are still things today which are better expressed with gesture than speech, for example size, shape, direction and nearby objects.
That granted, at some stage, maybe a group of homo habilis, who were doing tasks together, gestured to each other and started making some sounds. Highly probable.
However, in the evolution from Australopithecus to Homo Habilis to Homo Erectus and Home Sapien (and various classifications within these four genus), when did speech begin?
Christine Kenneally in her book The First Word, lies in the nature of the spoken word:
For all its power to wound and seduce, speech is our most ephemeral creation; it is little more than air. It exits the body as a series of puffs and dissipates quickly into the atmosphere. . . . There are no verbs preserved in amber, no ossified nouns, and no prehistorical shrieks forever spread-eagled in the lava that took them by surprise.
(The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. Viking, 2007)
Here are a few notes compiled from the large amounts of literature available on the subject by some of the greatest archaeologists of our times;-
- All evolution is non-linear. There’s a lot of overlap.
- Because language cannot ‘fossilise’, scientists have to rely on purely circumstantial evidence when trying to determine the language and speech capabilities of our ancient ancestors. This has led to continued debates as to when language evolved. There are two main views – some scientists believe language appeared suddenly, and is limited to our own species. Others claim language evolved slowly over the last 2 million years and was not restricted to our own species.
- Australopithecus, best symbolized by the remains of Lucy, dating 2.8 to 3.9 million years ago in Eastern Africa is commonly thought to have no language or speech abilities. It is likely however, that communication was circumstantially important and that they may have been as vocal as modern chimpanzees. The base of Lucy’s skull was ape-like in shape. This indicates that she, and others of her species Australopithecus afarensis, had an ape-like vocal tract. Chimpanzees, for instance, have a vocal tract with a high larynx and a short pharynx. This limits the range of sounds that they are able to produce. Lucy’s sound range would probably have been restricted in the same way.
- Homo ergaster (homo erectus) and its representative, The Turkana Boy, dating 1.5 -1.9 million years ago, also had limited speech and language ability. It was initially believed that the ‘Turkana Boy’, and members of his species, Homo ergaster, were capable of language. This was because the inside of the boy’s fossilised skull showed an impression from a part of the brain known as Broca’s Area. Possession of Broca’s Area was once considered to indicate the ability to speak. New technologies such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) have however shown that Broca’s Area does not always function during speech and cannot be used as evidence of speech in our ancestors.
- Homo neanderthalensis, dating back 300,000 – 28,000 years ago lived in Europe and the Middle East. This species had relatively advanced language abilities, but evidence
suggests that they may have had a limited vocal range compared to modern humans. Neanderthal skull bases appear to be less arched than those of modern humans but more arched than those of modern apes. This suggests that the Neanderthals would have been capable of some speech but probably not the complete range of sounds that modern humans produce.
- The most conclusive evidence to pinpoint when language began is this- Researchers studying Neanderthal genes discovered that they shared the same version of a gene FOXP2 with modern humans. FOXP2 is the only gene known so far that plays a key role in language. When mutated, it primarily affects language without affecting other abilities. This gene appears in different forms in other vertebrates where it performs a slightly different function. This suggests the gene mutated not long before the split between the Neanderthals and modern human lines. However, there are plenty of genes involved in language so it takes more than the FOXP2 gene to conclusively prove language ability.
- Cro-Magnons (Homo sapiens) who lived 40,000 – 10,000 years ago in Europe
were members of our own species, Homo sapiens. There is little reason to doubt that these people had the ability to talk and use symbolic language.
Although Cro-Magnon people have left no evidence of written language, they produced symbolic art, performed long distance trade, held ritual burial ceremonies and planned and designed a technologically advanced tool kit. The physical features associated with spoken language, such as the vocal tract, the structure of the brain and the size of the spinal
cord, are identical between Cro-Magnon people and humans living today. This means that Cro-Magnon people would have been capable of producing the same sounds we use in speech.
LANGUAGE, EVOLVED CUSTOMS, RITUALS AND ART
It is clear that the mental processes associated with such abstract concepts as spiritualism and religion can be associated only with the capability for modern language. The 90,000 year-old double burial from Jebel Qafzeh, Israel is one of the earliest that shows careful placement of the deceased. This means that there were some complex constructs around the ritual of burial that were communicated within a community in some way.
Burials of modern humans become increasingly complex over time, and Cro-Magnon burials usually include grave goods and other evidence of ritual activity. This pattern of behaviour is also seen at burial sites of other modern human cultures throughout the world.
Other archaeological evidence of behaviour that could be connected to language use appears only in the last 40,000 years and includes the manufacture of highly complex tools, the
production of symbolic art and the existence of widespread trade systems.
So, one can surmise that somewhere between 90000 years ago and 40000 years ago, speech made its first appearance. Modern language is a much more evolved phenomenon, while sound and sign language could date 4mn years ago.