No Last Word on Language Origins

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  20 Nov 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5393, pp. 1455
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5393.1455

Human beings were anatomically ready to speak more than 150,000 years ago—but clear evidence that they were doing so does not appear for 100,000 years afterward

Nothing is more human than speech. Our closest primate relatives, chimpanzees, use tools, have intricate social lives, and show signs of self-awareness. But they lack spoken language, and all the capacities it implies, from rapid and flexible manipulation of symbols to the ability to conceptualize things remote in time or space. For archaeologists eager to learn how we became human, when and how language emerged is a crucial question.

Unfortunately, “speech does not fossilize,” notes anthropologist John Shea of the State University of New York, Stony Brook. Writing appears 6000 years ago, and there is scant evidence for the existence of notation before 13,000 years ago. How long might language have been around before that? The only evidence is indirect, and it suggests two wildly different answers.

Sound systems.

The human upper respiratory tract made speech possible as the high larynx seen in species like the chimp (left) dropped, creating an expanded pharynx (red).


Fossils show that the raw brain capacity for complex language, along with the necessary mouth and throat anatomy, were probably in place before 150,000 years ago. But most of the behaviors thought to depend on language did not appear until 40,000 years ago—the so-called Upper Paleolithic explosion that is manifested most strikingly in Europe. That was when tools, burials, living sites, and occasional hints of art and personal adornment reveal beings capable of planning and foresight, social organization and mutual assistance, a sense of aesthetics, and a grasp of symbols. “Everybody would accept that by 40,000 years ago, language is everywhere,” says Stanford University archaeologist Richard Klein.

That leaves at least 100,000 years of wiggle room. Into this time gap fall rare hints of modern behavior—burials and glimpses of trade, art, and sophisticated tools—that have allowed some archaeologists to argue that humans were speaking, and thinking the complex thoughts that go with speech, long before they left a plentiful record of these activities. Others, however, argue that there is no unequivocal evidence for modern human behavior before about 50,000 years ago. “At one extreme there are people who think that all hominids are ‘little people’ and at the other that the really ‘human’ things about human behavior are really very late,” says Alan Walker of Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

Delayed takeoff

The anatomy needed for speech was in place before 150,000 years ago, but the signs of complex language don't proliferate until around 40,000 years ago.

Judging from anatomy alone, speech of some sort—although not like that of modern humans—has probably been around for at least a million years, says Philip Lieberman of Brown University. Based on comparisons of modern humans with fossils and living apes, he says the hominid breathing and swallowing apparatus were even then beginning to reorganize in areas affecting the capacity for speech. Skull shape was becoming more humanlike, he says, with the distance between spinal column and the back of the mouth decreasing, indicating a shorter mouth better adapted for speech of some kind—albeit nasalized and phonetically limited.

Meanwhile, the other precondition of modern language, a big brain, was also emerging. The chimp-sized brains of the early australopithecines almost doubled in a growth spurt starting 2 million years ago. Then a second surge, beginning around half a million years ago, increased hominid brain size by another 75%, according to Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, bringing it to the 1500 cubic centimeters of today. At the same time, brain organization was shifting, with dramatic growth in areas implicated in speech, in the frontal and temporal lobes.

By at least 200,000 years ago, says anatomist Jeffrey Laitman of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, African hominids had cranial bases “identical to [those of] modern humans.” The larynx had also descended, signifying that the tongue was no longer confined to the vocal cavity but was now rooted in the throat, a development necessary for rapid and versatile vocalization. “By 100,000 to 150,000 years ago, you know you've got modern speech—there's no other reason to retain this crazy morphology,” says Lieberman. He points out that the speech package is costly—not only is the big brain an energy gobbler, but a dropped larynx offers no benefits other than speech, and it raises the risks of choking.

Words and deeds

And thereby hangs a mystery. Even though modern humans were equipped to talk up a storm, there are few definitive signs, for tens of thousands of years, of any of the behaviors anthropologists associate with language: complex tool technology and other signs of conceptualization and planning, trade, ritual, and art. Indeed, in the Middle East, where modern humans co-existed with the more archaic Neandertals for tens of thousands of years starting perhaps 90,000 years ago, the two groups behaved pretty much alike, says Klein, even though Neandertals may not have been capable of complex speech (see sidebar).

All that changes about 40,000 years ago, in the Upper Paleolithic revolution. Art and personal ornaments, which proliferate at about this time in Europe (see p. 1451), are far and away the clearest sign, says Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “Empathy, intuitive reasoning, and future planning are possible without language,” he says. So are impressive tools such as the aerodynamically crafted 400,000-year-old wooden spears reported last year to have been found in a German coal mine. But “it's difficult to conceive of art in the absence of language,” says Tattersall. “Language and art reflect each other.” Both involve symbols that are not just idiosyncratic but have “some kind of socially shared meaning,” adds Randall White of New York University.

“Socially shared meaning” shows up around 40,000 years ago in other realms besides art—such as tools. Harold Dibble of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, explains that until that time, the stone tools made by human ancestors don't fall into specialized types or vary much from one region to another. “The same three or four tools exist all over the Old World,” he says, adding that what have been described as different types of tools are often the same things at different stages of resharpening and reduction. “There is nothing in these kinds of technologies that necessarily forces us to assume a linguistic mode of transmission,” says Dibble.

But at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, new qualities become evident. The transition was especially abrupt in Europe, where so-called blade technology, based on standardized “blanks” that can be modified to make a wide range of tools, took over. Highly standardized tools for specific purposes, such as hunting particular kinds of animals, appear—and specialized tools, says Paul Mellars of Cambridge University, are a clue to “specialized language” on the part of their makers. Toolmakers also began exploiting new materials, namely bone and ivory, which demanded sophisticated carving skills that soon led to a proliferation of styles and designs. Once tools start to show “stylistic variability,” says Dibble, we are witnessing the injection of culture into tools. And transmission of culture in any meaningful way requires language.

To some researchers, these dramatic transformations imply that one more biological change, beyond the expansion of the brain and the change in throat anatomy, had taken place, making humans capable of fully modern language. Klein, for example, posits a “fortuitous mutation” some 50,000 years ago among modern humans in East Africa that “promoted the modern capacity” for rapid, flexible, and highly structured speech—along with the range of adaptive behavioral potential we think of as uniquely human. He doesn't see how anything else, such as a social or technological development, could have wrought such “sudden and fundamental” change, which modern humans then carried out of Africa and around the world.

Steven Mithen of the University of Reading in the U.K. also believes evolution did a late-stage tinkering with the brain, one that produced what he calls “fluid” human intelligence. Both apes and early humans, he believes, operate with what he calls a “Swiss army knife” model of intelligence. That is, they have technical, social, and “natural history” or environmental modules, but there's little cross talk between them. This could explain, for example, why humans were deft at shaping stones to butcher animals, but it never occurred to them to transform an animal bone into a cutting tool. At some point around the 40,000-year mark, Mithen believes the walls between these modules finally collapsed, leaving Homo sapiens furnished with the ability to generalize, perceive analogous phenomena, and exercise other powerful functions of the integrated human intelligence. Only then would language have been fully mature.

Others say that instead of reflecting a final step in brain evolution, language might have crystallized as part of a social change, perhaps triggered by population growth. “I don't subscribe to the cognitive model of a new bit gets added on,” says Clive Gamble of Cambridge University. “I would argue it's changes in the social context”—for example, the complexity of behavior needed for large numbers of people to live together.

The revolution that wasn't?

Or maybe there was no linguistic watershed 40,000 years ago after all. Alison Brooks of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Sally McBrearty of the University of Connecticut, Storrs, have called the Upper Paleolithic revolution “the revolution that wasn't,” arguing that at least in Africa, the modern behaviors thought to go hand in hand with language emerged gradually, well before 40,000 years ago. Their case rests in part on a set of barbed bone spear points that Brooks and her colleagues found at Katanda, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Science, 28 April 1995, pp. 495, 548, 553). Bone technology is associated with the Upper Paleolithic in Europe, says Brooks—and yet these bone points have been dated to between 80,000 and 90,000 years ago. And stone points designed to tip spears or arrows, although very rare in Europe at this time, show up in various places in Africa more than 100,000 years ago, she says.

The Katanda site also showed other signs of sophistication: “seasonal scheduling” of freshwater fishing, says Brooks, as revealed by the remains of large catfish—and no sign of juveniles—suggesting they were caught at spawning time. Elsewhere in Africa, there is evidence of a large “trading network” as early as 130,000 years ago, say Brooks and McBrearty. Two sites in Tanzania have yielded pieces of obsidian, used to make points, found 300 kilometers away from their origin in Kenya's Central Rift Valley. Brooks also cites “a tremendous elaboration in pigment use” in the form of red ochre, presumably used for decoration and body adornment, notably at a 77,000-year-old site in Botswana.

Brooks believes all these lines of evidence spell the existence of language. All the signs are in the record, she says, including “complicated exchanges … planning depth, and capacity for innovation.” As for “stylistic variability” in tools, Brooks says there's plenty in 80,000-year-old African stone points. “You can pick up a stone point … and in eight cases out of 10 say what region it came from,” she says.

Brooks and McBrearty's case for the early emergence of modern behavior and language is controversial, especially as it rests heavily on the presumed antiquity of the bone points, whose age was gauged by dating of surrounding sediments and nearby hippo teeth. Scientists have reservations about the dating techniques (Science, 10 October 1997, p. 220). Among the skeptics is Klein, who does excavations in South Africa. Of the bone points, he says, “I don't think those things are even remotely likely to be” 90,000 years old—especially because “the next oldest occurrence” of similar points is dated at 12,000 years ago. He also discounts the ochre data, saying “red ochre is all over the place” at early sites, including Neandertal ones, and could well have been used for some purpose other than decoration. Mellars is also skeptical, saying about the obsidian trade: “Human beings move around quite a lot. Even if there was some deliberate exchange, I don't see that necessarily as an index of anything exciting cognitively.”

The hints of early language use don't end there, however. Two 90,000-year-old burials in Israel containing anatomically modern humans—from a time when the Middle East was ecologically an extension of Africa—unequivocally show ritual behavior and the use of language that implies, says John Shea. One burial, at a site called Qafzeh, held a child buried with a deer antler. At the other, Skhul, the skeleton was found clasping the jawbone of a wild boar to its chest. Although any deliberate burial represents going “beyond the minimal necessary action for body disposal,” says Shea, the inclusion of grave goods casts the action into a another realm of meaning—the socially shared meaning of arbitrarily assigned symbols that is at the heart of language.

To some people, such as Brooks, these burials strengthen the case that modern behavior was well under way before the Upper Paleolithic revolution. Mithen sees them as a sign that the transition from Swiss army knife minds to “cognitive fluidity” was under way. Klein, on the other hand, is still dubious about the putative grave goods, saying it is extremely difficult to “distinguish what was an intentional act and a situation where something was accidentally incorporated.”

There's one accomplishment that everyone agrees would qualify humans as fully modern, language-using people: getting to Australia. Even in the recent ice age, when sea level was lower, at least 100 kilometers of open water separated Australia from the nearest part of Asia. To reach Australia, humans had to build and provision sturdy boats—a sign not only of technological advancement and navigational skill but also of high levels of planning and cooperation, says Gamble.

Some archaeologists believe there is persuasive evidence that people managed to do all this by 60,000 years ago, based on dating at two stone tool sites in Northern Australia. But on this as on so many other hints of modern behavior, consensus is elusive. The dating was done by thermoluminescence, a technique that has not always proven reliable. Gamble says that the more reliable technique of radiocarbon dating, although capable of going back at least 40,000 years, has never identified an archaeological site in Australia older than 35,000.

Even if the uncertainties about artifacts and dates can be resolved, the question of whether fully modern language emerged in a sudden biological or cultural step 40,000 years ago or gradually, over the preceding tens of thousands of years, won't be settled. “The fundamental problem here is there is only one species on the planet who has language,” says Duke University anthropologist Matt Cartmill. “We have one data point. With so many things unique to humans, we don't know what language is necessary for or what is necessary for language.”

And there will still be plenty of room to argue that the scarcity of evidence for symbolic behavior before 40,000 years ago doesn't prove it wasn't happening. Leslie Aiello of University College London, for example, says the evidence might have all perished—after all, she notes, it would be very difficult to pick up signs of symbolic abilities from the archaeological record of the historical California Indians, who had a complex culture but produced very few artifacts in durable materials like stone.

Shea agrees, noting that an archaeologist “is like the drunk in the old joke who looks where the light is good” for his lost keys. Future finds could alter the hominid story: Although there are more than 100 excavated sites in southwestern France alone, Brooks notes, all of East Africa, the likely birthplace of modern humans, has just a dozen; and in Asia the record is mostly a big question mark. Thus paleoanthropology is a game for philosophers as well as scientists, and there is plenty of room for free play of the romantic imagination.

Stay Connected to Science


Navigate This Article