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When Did Human Language First Appear?

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson addresses the question of when human language first appeared. We discuss the archaeological evidence for the minimum age while comparing various theories for the maximum possible age.

A World Without Language

Most of us cannot imagine our lives without language--whether we are using written language online, having spoken conversations with friends and family, or signing to communicate with those in the deaf community. Language is the primary way that we humans interact with one another. It strengthens interpersonal relationships, allows us to perform cooperative tasks, share and learn skills, and collect the information we use to make amazing advancements in every field.

Take a moment and try to imagine the world without language. As difficult as it is, we know such a place once existed. Human language had to come from somewhere, but it was so long ago we cannot pinpoint when. However, this doesn't stop linguistic researchers from trying to establish a general idea of when human language first appeared.

The Minimum Age of Language

Although the age of language is more difficult to pinpoint on the oldest end of the spectrum, we have a definite minimum age for language based on archaeological evidence. The oldest known system of writing, called cuneiform dates back to around 5300 BCE and was developed by the Sumerians. As the development of writing depends on an existing spoken language, we know language can be no younger than that.

Cuneiform
Cuneiform

We have other evidence and indications that may push the most recent date further in the past, but these are still speculative. Some theorists argue that cave paintings and specially carved bones dating to the Stone Age (ranging from 35,000 - 10,000 BCE ) found in Europe, Asia, and Africa may be the earliest attempts to communicate through a visual means, a sort of protolanguage.

Chauvet Cave Paintings
Cave Painting

The Maximum Age of Language

We cannot say with certainty what the maximum possible age of human language could be. What we do know is that human language is unlike any form of communication used by other animals. For this reason, we know it had to develop after our genetic lineage split from that of our nearest relatives, chimpanzees.

Using fossil evidence and a complex algorithm to determine rates of genetic change over time, scientists believe our two species last shared an ancestor somewhere between 7 and 5 million years ago. This precludes language existing before that time, but it doesn't necessarily mean hominids, the bipedal primate ancestors of humans, did not have language.

The Necessary Biology

While the production of spoken language today uses a complex system of logic and specially adapted body parts to produce a special system of sounds, it is possible that language could exist with less complex systems. Our human ancestors would only need two mutation to communicate through sound. The first mutation would allow them to control the type of calls they made and produce standardized sounds at will. The other mutation would enable them to interpret sounds with more complex meaning. These changes might not result in the type of complex languages we see today, but they could result in a protolanguage.

A mutation of the FOXP2 gene may have given us the cognitive ability and the motor control needed to from oral language. These mutations very likely happened between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago. Children born with a version of this gene closely resembling the version found in apes have difficulty with complex control of muscles in their faces and mouths as well as significant problems understanding language. Coincidentally, or perhaps not a coincidence, our modern version of the gene appeared only a short time before sudden developments in art, religion, and agriculture.

One gene might make the difference between our communication and the communication of these bonobos.
Bonobos

In contrast to theories requiring only a simple mutation, some theorists believe language could not exist outside of the vocal and brain configuration, as well as behavior patterns, exhibited by modern humans. While the final arrangement of our mouths, throats, and brains only finalized around 130,000 years ago, the behaviors required for language only appeared between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago.

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