When did language first appear?

X99Lynx at aol.com X99Lynx at aol.com
Sat Feb 27 06:48:38 UTC 1999

[ moderator re-formatted ]

In a message dated 2/26/99 9:33:38 PM,  Carol Jensen quoted Cavalli-Sforza:
"That language appeared overnight, as it were, and immediately became as
sophisticated as it is today, would be hard to believe. There is, however, a
small piece of evidence that in the oldest species of humanity, Homo habilis,
the biological basis for some primitive language form already existed."

Ms Jensen continues:
<<We know there are areas important for language in the brain,... These areas
(known as Broca and Wernicke) are found in the temporal region of the brain's
left hemisphere and make the cranium slightly asymmetrical, with the left side
being slightly larger. This asymmetrical form is already found in our most
intact Homo habilis skulls from more than two million years ago, but is absent
from the apes closest to humans."

The problem with this whole approach is that it really does not reflect the

That evidence points pretty clearly to the beginnings of human speech as being
dependent on motor control of the tongue and mouth, rather than some sudden
"boost" over the brain of our hominid ancestors.  The fact is, apes may not
show the mentioned cranial asymmetry, BUT they ARE capable of learning fairly
complex non-oral language.  They cannot however acheive the subtleties of
human speech.  And that is because of a lack of motor control to produce "the
variety of sounds we would recognize in a non-written language" - i.e., with
all the complexities of case, tense, etc, that historical linguist would
expect to find there.

Furthermore, lesions in the so-called "Broca and Wernicke" regions have been
shown to result in cognitive and motor dysfunctions unrelated to speech,
indicating that what occurs with damage to these areas is a more fundamental
and underlying disruption in brain activity than just language.

Both of these facts point to finding the transition from non-speech to speech

The CURRENT issues related to the title of this thread (When did language
first appear?) revolve around not brain development, but the question of what
evidence best indicates the ability to produce human speech in our ancestors.
Below I've included a part of a very recent news piece on the argument going
on about the size of the hypoglossal canal which carries nerves controlling
the tongue.


>WASHINGTON (AP) _ California researchers are challenging a study that raised
>the possibility that Neanderthals could talk. Duke University scientists
>reported in April that a bony canal in the skulls of Neanderthals indicates
>they may have had the nerve complex needed to control the subtle and varied
>movement of the tongue required for speech. A paper appearing in Tuesday's
>Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences questions that finding. "The
>size of the hypoglossal canal is not a reliable indicator of speech. Therefore
>the timing of the origin of human language and the speech capabilities of
>Neanderthals remain open questions," said the team headed by David DeGusta of
>the University of California at Berkeley...."

>The two studies have some similar findings but differ sharply in their
>conclusions. The Duke study speculated that Neanderthals might have been able
>to talk, based on findings that the average size of their hypoglossal canal
>was similar to that of modern humans. The canal, carrying the nerve that
>directs the tongue, is smaller in apes, which are incapable of complex speech,
>the Duke study found.... If Neanderthals could talk, it would indicate speech
>evolved significantly earlier than has been thought.

>Researchers have long believed that the ability to make modern human speech
>sounds did not develop until about 40,000 years ago. While modern humans came
>along after the Neanderthal, some may have lived at the same time and place as
>the final generations of those early people. DeGusta said his Berkeley group
>tested 30 nonhuman primates, compared to just two in the Duke study, and found
>15 of them had hypoglossal canal sizes larger than humans. "Because nonhuman
>primates are known not to speak, their hypoglossal canals should be smaller
>than those in modern humans," the researchers said.  But "many nonhuman
>primate specimens have hypoglossal canal areas that fall within the range of
>our modern human sample."  "The average gibbon's canal is twice as large as a
>modern human's ..." DeGusta said in a telephone interview, "so we suggest you
>cannot use canal size" to indicate the ability to speak. Indeed the Berkeley
>paper notes that some very ancient hominids had average canal sizes close to

>According to the Duke study, "modern human speech capabilities originated at
>least 3.2 million years ago in Australopithecus afarensis, a species not
>previously noted for (brain development), symbolic capacity or even stone tool
>making," they said.  Australopithecus afarensis is the family of the famous
>African fossil Lucy.  [DeGusta] said the Berkeley researchers concentrated on
>the range of canal measurements rather than their average, concluding that "an
>individual's ability to speak can depend only on its own canal size, not the
>mean size for its species." Kay defended his group's use of average size by
>comparing studies of brain size in ancient and modern species. Modern humans
>have a brain capacity of about 1,250 cubic centimeters, he said, though in
>some individuals it is as small as 800 cc....  [Snipped.]

Steve Long

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