Physical and Cultural Changes Leading to Language

The mysteries of how, when, and why language began have befuddled scientists and laymen alike for centuries. This question has not been fully answered even to this day, but scientists’ findings in the last few decades have led to the discovery of some likely starting points. Fossil evidence indicates that there were several physical and cultural changes from primitive Australopithecines to Homo sapiens that sparked the creation of human language. These changes included bipedalism, larynx-lowering, encephalization, and the creation of tools and art.

The Australopithecus anamensis, which scientists believe originated 4.2 million years ago, is considered by most scientists to be a definite ancestor to humans. Its brain was much like its ancestors’ in its simplicity, and there is no evidence of any anamensis language, tools, or culture. The key trait distinguishing it from earlier primates is its ability to walk upright. Scientists infer this from the structure of the anamensis’ bones, which suggest that they had a more vertical body position than their ancestors. One particularly strong indication of Australopithecines’ ability to walk upright is the shift of the skull’s spinal cord entry hole from the back of primate’s skulls to the front. This hole, called the foramen magnum, indicates the angle at which primates held their heads. The foramen magnum’s shift toward the center of the skull enabled anamensis primates to hold their heads upright instead of leaning forward, which proves they spent a great deal of time standing vertically.

Although it may seem at first that walking on two legs should have nothing to do with communication, bipedalism may have been a necessary condition for language. At the very least, it was beneficial. This is evident for several reasons. One is used by scientists who theorize that language began as a vocabulary of hand gestures instead of speech. These people point to the fact that bipedalism freed primates from using their hands to walk. Because hands were not necessary for travel, primates could use their hands to create signals.

Other scientists, however, assert the opposite belief: language derived from speech became a possibility once primates practiced bipedalism. They point to the lowering of the larynx due to walking upright. Having a lowered larynx enables the production of a wider range of sounds. Several in the field, however, look upon this development with some skepticism. It is true that in order to talk, Homo sapiens are essentially required to have a lowered larynx. Yet this trait is clearly not the only contributor to speech. For example, some deer can lower their larynxes, but they obviously cannot speak. Instead, they do so for a completely different reason: the advantage of sounding like a larger animal by virtue of making lower pitched sounds. Thus, while remaining an important factor, the lowered larynx is not nearly the sole reason for speech.

The main change from Australopithecines to modern humans that both hand gesture and speech theorists can point to is encephalization. In other words, primates’ brains expansion is considered to be the key to language. Without this, primates would have simply not been intelligent enough to rise above other animals and create language as well as culture. Before encephalization, primates had proportionally larger occipital and olfactory areas. As their brain size increased, however, primates began to have larger frontal and parietal lobes. Species in the genus Homo went from specializing in sight and smelling to higher-order thinking. Without larger frontal and parietal lobes, primates would have no area to store, extract, or create vocabulary and syntax.

Once their brains developed further, primates were able to create cultural artifacts. These artifacts include Homo habilis’ tools of the Oldowan tradition, which lasted from 2.5 mya to 1.5 mya. These first-ever primitive tools were all made of stone and included pebble tools, choppers, and scrapers. One might doubt the significance of a few rocks found a few meter’s beneath the earth’s surface. The rocks, he or she might reason, might have merely rolled down a hill and cracked upon striking a boulder. Yet this is not the case. Scientists can prove based on the slant and polished appearance of the rock fractures that primates intentionally shaped the rocks into tools.

As primates continued to evolve and have increasingly larger parietal and frontal lobes, tools became more complex. Following the Oldowan tools were Homo ergaster’s more advanced Acheulean tools, which were in use sometime between 2.2 and 1.5 million years BP. These included hand axes, knives and scrapers. These tools indicate the evidence of a few firsts in primate history: the beginnings of systematic hunting, the use of home bases, and the discovery of fire. All of these pieces of evidence point to the existence of culture and at least some form of rudimentary protolanguage, which most likely included only a small vocabulary and no syntax. Topics of conversation probably included only the most important subjects concerning survival, including instructions on how to make fires or making plans to hunt in a certain area.

From 300k-50k BP, H. heidelbergensis and H. antecessor took part in the Mousterian tradition. This included not only more complicated composite tools, but also ritual burials and art. The first evidence of art comes in the form of red ochre, dated to 77 kya in southern Africa. Due to the complexity of Mousterian cultural artifacts, scientists believe that by this time H. heidelbergensis had evolved a clearly reorganized brain as well as genuine language capabilities surpassing those of mere protolanguage. By 200 kya, the earliest form of cro-magnon Homo sapiens existed and had many different elaborate cultures. These primitive humans painted stories on cave walls and engraved elephant tusks. In addition, modern humans invented the first forms of agriculture by 10 kya.

Through the study of fossilized remains, scientists can form hypotheses regarding the origins of human language. These educated guesses are put to the test each time an archaeologist recovers a fossil. Scientists hope to someday pinpoint the exact dates of each cultural and physical development of primates and to know for sure how and when language began, but until then they will continue to discover, debate, and revise their hypotheses.