Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Evolution of the Hominid Mind: On the recent origins of language

When might humans have begun to use language? The recent literature that deals with this question provides hypotheses of all shades. For example, Pinker (1994, pp. 352-3) claims that 'the first traces of language could have appeared as early as Australopithecus africanus. ... It is easy to imagine some form of language contributing to [the success of Homo erectus].' Holloway (1969) and Tobias (1987, 1991) also argue for an early emergence of language, not with australopithecines, but perhaps with Homo habilis. Bickerton (1990) is more conservative. He draws a distinction between protolanguage and language, and argues that 'protolanguage did not develop until erectus emerged. This would give protolanguage a time depth of around a million and a half years' (p. 141). In his view, real language, as distinct from protolanguage, arose more recently, with modern humans, giving it a time-depth of at least 100 000 years. Bickerton is thus in agreement with Lieberman (1991) who is confident that 'we can date language as we know it back to at least ... 100 000 years ago at the edge of Africa and Asia' (p.172). Noble and Davidson (1996) are more cautious still, concluding that it was 'sometime between about 100 000 and 70 000 years before the present [that] the behaviour emerged which has become identified as linguistic' (p. 217).

Yet there is precious little evidence for language even at that late stage: for, as Halverson (1993) notes, 'we do not know whether the Cro-Magnons [at 35,000 bp] even had a fully developed, grammaticized language' (p. 762). And if we were to appeal to direct data, then the earliest incontrovertible evidence that humans could speak is not much more than 100 years old (i.e., Edison's recordings). Beyond that, we must work by inference from less direct evidence. What do these sources tell us?

Continued at "On the recent origin of symbolically-mediated language and its implications for psychological science" [Science, Evolution, Anthropology, Linguistics, Hypothesis, Theory, Behavior, Cro-magnon, Grammar, Psychology]

Second draft chapter prepared for
S. Lea and M. Corballis (Eds) Evolution of the Hominid Mind.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Andrew Lock
Massey University

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