If there is something that differentiates human beings from other species, it is our ability to communicate and transmit information at an unparalleled level. However, we know very little about the origin of one of humanity’s most important tools. Science only has hypotheses to try to explain this aspect of human evolution. Without documents or sources that can show when, how and why human language arose, we cling to some clues to try to define the origin of something as flexible as language, in constant change that, despite its presence spread throughout the world, world, leaves no trace until the invention of writing. But the human being has spoken long before knowing how to write and, to a great extent, it is our language that has raised us as the species that dominates the world today. Paraphrasing the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein:
“The limits of language are the limits of our world.”
The cognitive revolution
Between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago it is estimated that there was a whole cognitive revolution that led to new ways of thinking and communicating . We do not have many certainties about the reasons that led to this fundamental change in the evolution of the human being, but:
“The most widely shared theory is that accidental genetic mutations changed the internal wiring of the Sapiens’ brain, allowing them to think in unprecedented ways and communicate using an entirely new kind of language.”
We are far from the only living beings with the ability to communicate. Many species have some kind of language of their own . And not only with gestures, but there are species that have vocal languages that they use to warn of some danger such as the presence of a predator. And, of course, a parrot can vocally reproduce any sound it wants and articulate any sentence pronounced by man. What do we need to be able to emit sounds through our mouth?
Among other aspects, we need enormous control of our breathing . For this, the human body has a diaphragm that has many more nerves than that of apes, our closest relatives. To accommodate this amount of nerves, our spinal cord is slightly thicker at the level of the diaphragm and, therefore, the spine is also wider. About 600,000 years ago, Neanderthals already had this enlarged spine. However, Homo erectus fossils do not show this feature.
From sound to words
However, making sounds does not imply being able to speak . Our advantage is not in the ability to articulate sounds, but in understanding that these sounds contain a specific message . Knowing how this wonder of nature originated is still an impossible mission for now. We have no documents or any sources that point us to any evidence. We can only theorize hypotheses and look for some clues to which we try to give common sense to order how we think language could have developed.
Among the different theories is the one that defends that the language of the human being evolved as a means to share information about the world. This theory in turn branches into several options. Sure, it makes sense that we would start talking about those around us, but this concept is as broad as it is vague. There are specialists who believe that, beyond communication to obtain basic needs such as protection and food, language evolved into much more flexible forms thanks to gossip . As trivial as it may seem, the theory of gossip proposes that the interest in telling who did what, to whom, when, where and why is what led us to articulate an increasingly complex language. And from there we were able to make the leap to talk about things that were no longer part of the world around us. We begin to transmit abstract ideas, concepts about things that do not exist. Fiction has allowed us to imagine and this capacity has been used to unite ever larger groups. So that:
Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. This is why Sapiens rule the world, while ants eat our leftovers and chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research labs.”
It is clear that during the Stone Age the human being began to speak and share information. According to the gossip theory, during this long period of prehistory we would already have words like “dad”, “mom”, “sister” or “friend”.
Christiansen, M. 2003. Language evolution: consensus and controversies. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7, 7, 300-307. DOI: 10.1016/S1364-6613(03)00136-0.
Harari, Y. 2018. Sapiens. From animals to gods. Brief history of humanity. Debate.
Llorente, A. 2021. How did language originate and why “is it a difficult problem for science”? bbc.com.
Pagel, M. 2022. Curious Kids: how did people talk in the Stone Age? theconversation.com.