From Nicola Davis at the Guardian:
“Erectus needed language when they were sailing to the island of Flores. They couldn’t have simply caught a ride on a floating log because then they would have been washed out to sea when they hit the current,” said Everett, presenting his thesis at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin. “They needed to be able to paddle. And if they paddled they needed to be able to say ‘paddle there’ or ‘don’t paddle.’ You need communication with symbols not just grunts.”
It is unknown when language emerged among hominids; some argue that it is a feature only of our own species, Homo sapiens, which suggests a timing of no earlier than 200,000 years ago. But Everett believes it goes back further than that.
Everett says that H. erectus would have been unable to make the same range of sounds as we do, not least because they lacked the version of a gene necessary for speech and language to develop – known as FOXP2 – found in modern humans and Neanderthals, although it is not clear whether Neanderthals had language. But he argues that as few as two sounds are needed for a language, and that it is likely H.erectus could make more than that. More.
Others dispute his claims, to be sure. But, you know, those hominins get smarter every time we research them.
Readers may remember Daniel Everett from Tom Wolfe’s book, The Kingdom of Speech, where Wolfe questions claims about the evolution of language by pitting Everett’s research into the Piraha language against the theories of Noam Chomsky.
See also: Modern human remains found in Flores man cave
Kingdom of Speech: But is Everett wrong about Piraha?
Tom Wolfe: What we think we know re evolution is wrong