The Human Journey
The Evolution of Language

The Evolution of Language

Oral Culture

Cooperative communication, collective planning and community decision-making, negotiation, rules and customs—all were made possible with speech. For the first time, the interconnectedness of the group could be reinforced through the creation and repetition of stories and myths.

brain image
Some of the areas of the brain involved in language processing: Broca's area (Blue), Wernicke’s area (Green), Supramarginal gyrus (Yellow), Angular gyrus (Orange) and Primary Auditory Cortex (Pink)

We don’t know exactly when hominids began using speech; it may have been as early as 200,000 years ago, and almost certainly had progressed by 50,000 years ago. When modern humans entered Europe about 45,000 to 42,000 years ago, Neanderthals were already there. The two groups lived side-by-side and competed for the same resources until Neanderthals died out, about 35,000 years ago. Some scholars believe that complex speech was the primary advantage modern humans had over Neanderthals, based on skull differences in the basicranial line, nasopharynx and upper vocal cavity.

Cultural Takeoff Propelled by Speech

Between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago, genetically modern humans achieved what anthropologist Marvin Harris in his book Our Kind calls cultural takeoff, which was almost certainly propelled by a linguistic takeoff. Based on anatomical evidence including an enlarged brain, a new, descended larynx and changes to the suboral cavity and tongue, both Harris and Donald believe that by at least 45,000 years ago Homo sapiens had fully developed speech and a complex oral culture.

Speech was the ideal medium for developing symbolic communication among people who lived close together, without compromising the visual and motor skills they relied on for survival. For one thing, speech does not interfere with other activities such as locomotion, tool or jewelry making. People were able to talk to each other and communicate relevant information much more efficiently and at times when it would have been impossible to use mimesis.

Another advantage is that the range of vocal sounds humans can produce to express themselves is substantially more than a usable repertoire of mimetic symbols or the limited number of sounds that apes can produce.

And lastly, speech is relatively easy to remember and rehearse, so a group could produce a large body of words that were retrievable in memory.

Baby expressions

The Capability and Drive for Oral Expression are Innate in Modern Babies

About 6,000 sounds represent the spoken languages around the world and babies can recognize all of them. From about six months old we begin to distinguish the significant sounds of our own community’s speech and learn the mental models that make sense out of these sounds.

Helen Keller, an American woman who was deaf, dumb and blind from infancy, says in her autobiography that as a child she felt driven to vocalize, even though she could not hear her sounds and didn’t know that speech was for communicating. Although her family tried to discourage her from making what they thought of as random noise, she could not resist the sensation of vocalizing.

She also relates the incident when, after intensive efforts by her teacher to teach sign language to her, she suddenly recognized what it all meant: that everything has a name. This was the very powerful mental model that united sign language and the world of experience for her, and it is likely a basic model for the understanding of all symbolic languages.

Early Cave painting of Eland
The Eland is considered a sacred animal by the San Bushmen of South Africa and has an important place in their creation myth. Many rock faces depict these elegant creatures.

Evolution’s Answer to the Need for Advanced Communication and Myths

Donald and others believe that the evolution of speech was driven by our desire to communicate concepts we could not express through mimesis. Beyond the simple relating of here-and-now events and circumstances, the need for cooperative communication, to make collective plans and community decisions, to negotiate, create rules and customs, all became possible with speech.

For the first time stories and myths were created and repeated which helped to reinforce the interconnectedness of the group. All Stone Age cultures that have survived into the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have highly developed mythic/religious traditions. This separated modern humans from their ancestors who did not have speech.

In predominantly oral societies, myth is the main controlling social force, assigning meaning, context and setting to every act, event, object and creature. We think of these early cultures with speech as oral societies, because the facility of speech dominated and profoundly affected the nature of their group interactions.