Of what use would speech be, without the anatomy to hear?


I’ve already shared this as a response to a comment on my blog.  However, some more thoughts came my way in person, notably Mr.Vithal Nadkarni, a mentor, whose vast breadth of reading I someday hope to match at least by half.

There’s very little of original thought on this blog. Maybe less than 10%. It’s a tribute to the work of many greats, who persevered to discover the beauty of how human beings started to speak. It’s also a simpler place for students to make sense of the evolutionary miracle that we are.

Speech could not have existed without hearing. I think this is very basic.

Equally basic is the assumption, that in all evolution form precedes function eg- birds had feathers for millions of years before they realized that they were meant for flight.

It is therefore safe to assume that by the time the cultural setting for language began to be expressed, the structures that permit speech had already been in place for a long time – at least since the emergence prior to 150,000 years ago of Homo sapiens as an anatomical entity.

By logic, the faculty of hearing had to be developed before this- some scholars have suggested that the development of the human ear enabled it to pick up human speech better than the chimpanzee ear. This appears to have happened by 350,000 years ago, according to fossils of human remains found in northern Spain.

Interestingly, after the emergence of homo sapiens, they drove all other ‘homo’ species to extinction. This was about 50000 years ago. The most evolved species before us, the Neanderthals who flourished between 300,000 – 28,000 had relatively advanced communication abilities, but evidence suggests that they may have had a limited vocal range compared to modern humans. They are credited with fine stone art and invention of burials.
Homo sapiens first emerged 150000 yrs  ago, and by 50000 years ago, were the only surviving species. Something drastic happened. One big documented change is climate- but  responding to adversity as group demanded coordination. Language is one of the biggest tools to enable coordination. Home sapiens surely developed the ability for language, which was their biggest competitive advantage in survival.

By then the FOXP2 gene, and the other physical features associated with spoken language, such as the vocal tract, the structure of the brain and the size of the spinal cord, were already in place. It is difficult to put a date to the appearance of the human larynx (paleontologists say thus, because there are no bones just muscle and cartilage associated with the larynx- also called voice box). The vocal cords themselves are no more than infoldings of the larynx. They vibrate, like the strings of a violin, to produce a huge range of sounds in modern humans)

The above, placed in context with the 90,000 year-old double burial from Jebel Qafzeh, Israel (one of the earliest that shows careful placement of the deceased)indicating complex constructs around the ritual of burial that were communicated within a community in some way- suggest that modern speech (as opposed to sound)  is young- and emerged between 90000 and 40000 years ago.

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