Article published in:New Perspectives on the Origins of Language
Edited by Claire Lefebvre, Bernard Comrie and Henri Cohen
[Studies in Language Companion Series 144] 2013
► pp. 129–146
Paleoanthropology and language
Unwritten language leaves no material traces, so whether or not a particular fossil hominid possessed language must be inferred from proxy evidence. This leaves a great deal of room for argument. My contention here is that the intimate feedback between language and symbolic cognition strongly implies that the possession of language may only be confidently inferred from the material products of symbolic minds. Such products include geometrical and realistic imagery, items of symbolic bodily adornment, highly complex multistage technologies, and even radical alterations in the tempo of change itself. Evidence in these categories is known from African sites dating from the later Middle Stone Age, ca. 80 kyr ago, and possibly earlier. However, even the most ancient such sites considerably postdate the appearance in the same continent of Homo sapiens as an anatomically distinct entity, at some point around 200 kyr ago. The first anatomically modern people appear to have possessed behavioral repertoires not unlike those of contemporaneous nonsymbolic hominids such as Homo neanderthalensis, strongly suggesting (1) that symbolic cognition, and by extension language, were acquired by Homo sapiens well within its tenure, and (2) that at this point the anatomical structures necessary for producing modern speech had already been in existence for a considerable time, having been acquired initially in another context entirely. What is more, the neural substrate that permits symbolic thought was clearly already present, having presumably been acquired in the major developmental reorganization that gave rise to Homo sapiens as a distinct anatomical entity. The biology, after all, must have been in place to allow the behavior to be expressed. But the immediate impetus to the acquisition of symbolic thought appears necessarily to have been cultural rather than biological. Most likely, this stimulus was the invention of language, which, as an externalized attribute, could have spread with particular rapidity through a biologically enabled population.
Published online: 21 November 2013