Human evolution News

Profs think language half a million years old

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Abstract It is usually assumed that modern language is a recent phenomenon, coinciding with the emergence of modern humans themselves. Many assume as well that this is the result of a single, sudden mutation giving rise to the full “modern package.” However, we argue here that recognizably modern language is likely an ancient feature of our genus pre-dating at least the common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals about half a million years ago. To this end, we adduce a broad range of evidence from linguistics, genetics, paleontology, and archaeology clearly suggesting that Neandertals shared with us something like modern speech and language. This reassessment of the antiquity of modern language, from the usually quoted 50,000–100,000 years to half a million years, has profound consequences for our understanding of our own evolution in general and especially for the sciences of speech and language. As such, it argues against a saltationist scenario for the evolution of language, and toward a gradual process of culture-gene co-evolution extending to the present day. Another consequence is that the present-day linguistic diversity might better reflect the properties of the design space for language and not just the vagaries of history, and could also contain traces of the languages spoken by other human forms such as the Neandertals.

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An expert tells us that it sounds like these guys know what they are talking about.

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13 Replies to “Profs think language half a million years old

  1. 1
    Piotr says:

    It’s my view too, as a linguist. And yes, these guys do know what they are talking about.

  2. 2
    VunderGuy says:

    @Piotr

    Hey Piotr, if atheism is true, is Secular Humanism or Nihilism more true?

  3. 3
    Piotr says:

    VunderGuy:

    What the hell does it have to do with the topic of this blog?

  4. 4
    VunderGuy says:

    @Piotr

    Directly? Not a lot.

    Indirectly, a lot.

    So, you gonna answer it?

  5. 5
    Piotr says:

    No, I’m going to ignore it.

  6. 6
    VunderGuy says:

    @Piotr

    Why? Is it because if the answer is Nihilism, nothing, even this conversation, matters at all and you don’t want to think about it?

  7. 7
    Piotr says:

    No, because the topic of the blog is quite serious and worth discussing; an because it is so, some nut case must needs come along and derail the discussion before it even starts. If you have a bee in your bonnet about atheism and its varieties, go somewhere where such things are being discussed. Neither secular humanism nor nihilism have anything to do with the origin of language.

  8. 8
    vjtorley says:

    Hi News,

    I agree with Piotr: these guys do indeed know what they’re talking about. They make an excellent case, based on the fossil evidence, for the antiquity of human language. It now seems clear that Homo erectus lacked our capacity for spoken language, while Heidelberg man (Homo heidelbergensis) likely possessed it. The authors also do an effective job of puncturing the myth of the Upper Paleolithic cultural revolution, which was supposed to have occurred 50,000 years ago.

    Dediu and Levinson (the authors) are on shakier ground when they propose that human language emerged gradually, over a period of one million years or so. Hence I would disagree with them when they write that “the deep time frame supports the idea that the foundations for language were incrementally acquired.” The antiquity of human language does not imply that it appeared slowly. Nevertheless, I would concur with the authors’ stated opinion that in order to uncover the origins of language, we need to focus more on the evidence for the emergence of speech production and comprehension, as opposed to syntax. The former problem is more tractable, scientifically speaking. Dediu and Levinson also propose that human language initially went through a sign-language or gestural language phase: whatever one thinks of this idea, it is at least a testable hypothesis.

    Finally, the authors make an interesting admission when they write:

    Language as we know it must then have originated within the ~1 million years between H. erectus and the common ancestor of Neandertals and us. That is still a remarkably short period to evolve a complex system and the implication must be that language abilities were relatively rapidly cobbled together from preadapted cognitive and neurophysiological structures.

    Thanks again for this article, News. Definitely a good find.

  9. 9
    gpuccio says:

    Piotr:

    It seems interesting. Thank you for giving your very respected opinion about that!

  10. 10
    Robert Byers says:

    its all wrong as usual.
    However the point is that language is merely the use of sounds in segregated combinations to express thoughts. so its all agreed on what the sounds mean.
    Yet its the complexity of the thoughts that is the point. Are these dudes saying humanoids had complex thoughts BEFORE language. mute geniuses??
    How does this work??
    There would never be a grunting progression. Language must be very organized for common conversation.
    In reality language existed day one for Adam.

  11. 11
    Piotr says:

    “It’s usually assumed” is a bit of an overstatement. It’s true that many linguists have been inclined to date the origin of language at ca. 50-40 thousand years ago, correlating it with the appearance of cave painting and other forms of Paleolithic art on the one hand, and the original estimate of the age of the “human” variant of FOXP2 on the other. But a late and abrupt emergence of language (more precisely, of fully fledged syntax) is hardly the consensus view today despite the personal opinions of Noam Chomsky (who by the way shows very little understanding of the biological aspects of the question).

  12. 12
    Robert Byers says:

    Piotr
    Your linguists are wrong. Language came with adam and being a intelligent being.
    Evolutionists are trying to say intelligence went hand in hand with language in evolution.
    How could that be? What organized grunts suited until better ones?

  13. 13
    Piotr says:

    Robert Byers:

    You’d better leave this stuff to people who have studied it.

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