Since our species discovered that we aren’t the descendants of angels that “dropped from the zenith like a falling star” but the latest in a long line of changing animals that crawled from the seas to the trees and back down again, we are often guilty of a new kind of speciesism. It’s perhaps best represented in the misleading pictures that depict something like a chimpanzee, a Neanderthal, a hunter-gather and a modern man standing in a line, as if each figure represents an improvement on the last.
Part of our justification for this is that we are the only known living creature with language. But is this a skill unique to us? How and when did it appear? And what lessons can we learn about our own origins from studying those of language?
The Descent of Languages
In The Descent of Man, Darwin stated that man’s greatest discoveries were learning how to make fire and language. The latter, he believed, evolved gradually, starting with imitation, “[when] some unusually wise ape-like animal should have thought of imitating the growl of a beast of prey, so as to indicate to his fellow monkeys the nature of the expected danger.”
Indeed, our closest living relatives, monkeys and apes, all use communication verbally. (Green monkeys, for example, use calls that distinguish between threats high in the trees and on the forest floor.) However, despite our best efforts, we have failed to teach them how to communicate at anything like near our level. Noam Chomsky noted that it was “as likely that an ape will prove to have a language ability as there is an island somewhere with flightless birds waiting for us to teach them how to fly.”
Our extinct relatives
What about those even closer relatives of ours who are now extinct? Human species have existed for the past 2 million years, but only for a tenth of that have we (Homo sapiens) existed. 30,000 years ago our most well-known human relative, the Neanderthal, died out. Despite their large brains, however, Neanderthals did not share the anatomical structures that our mouths have, which indicates that the complex and demanding ability required to create language wasn’t as developed in them as it is in us. Interestingly, if they were able to speak, the voices of these fearsome-looking humans would have been relatively high-pitched, due to their broader and shorter necks.
So somewhere after splitting off from our common ancestor with other human species, our language ability accelerated to what it is now. Chomsky believes that it evolved from a chance mutation, whilst others feel it appeared more gradually. It has also been speculated that speaking took over from grooming as a way for our ancestors to interact with one another once the size of our groups had exceeded that which was practically – to coin a word – groomable. Another theory is that it developed because it enabled gossip: those with this ability would have held an evolutionary advantage over their less articulate friends and competitors. Darwin believed that sexual selection played its part in how it appeared, and many scientists are in agreement with this.
Whatever the ultimate reason or reasons for language appearing, the skills that it brought along (or that arrived with it) enabled more complex thinking, planning, cooperation and information storage, which might explain why, unlike our relatives, we avoided extinction. Wittgenstein said that “[t]he limits of my language means the limits of my world,” and perhaps this is how it was for our species, too.
When did language appear?
There seems to be more of a consensus on when it likely appeared. The oldest skulls showing evidence that they were capable of language have been dated to approximately 75 – 50,000 years ago, which coincides with the time frame in which we see evidence for a number of other signs of modern human behaviour, such as more complex tools and food gathering processes, burials, jewellery and cave art. This period is often referred to as the Cognitive Revolution.
During and after the Cognitive Revolution, our evolutionary rate changed dramatically. The changes in our behaviour mentioned above were further accelerated by new lifestyles, based around farming, which began appearing about 10,000 years ago. And now some scientists believe that our evolutionary rate could be working 100 times faster than it was for the majority of our species’ existence. The genes for structures in the inner ears of different populations have provided a fascinating hint about this. Britain’s foremost expert on human origins, Chris Stringer, writes: “The fact that different mutations [for genes relating to inner ear structure] are found when comparing Chinese and Japanese, Africans and Europeans samples suggests that selection even might have been tracking different languages and their most characteristic sounds.”
A branch on the tree of life
The more we look into our human origins, the more we find that far from being on the top of the tree of life, we merely occupy one branch of it. Though our language ability does seem unique, we can’t rule out that we are the only humans ever to have spoken. Given more time, and luck, perhaps our now-extinct relatives would have developed the skill to the level we have, and the today’s world wouldn’t quite look how it currently does. A point illustrated by Chris Stringer, who writes: “There are plenty of other paths that could have been taken; many would have led to no humans at all, others to extinction, and yet others to a different version of ‘modernity’. We only inhabit one version of being human – the one that exists today…”
The Origin of Our Species by Chris Stringer
Sapiens: A brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari
The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language by Steven Pinker
Darwin’s Island: The Galapagos in the Garden of England by Steve Jones