Modern Human Behavior: Origin of Language
Recognition of symbol use in the archaeological record (following Philip Chase's criteria):
- Regularity of use indicating purposeful and repeated activity;
- Yet repetitive behavior alone is not enough, because by itself not indicative of symbol use: Ex. Actions of individuals working without a system of shared meaning
- Therefore patterns need to be complex and learned linguistically rather than by observation or mimicry;
- Finally such behavior becomes symbolic, if it intentionally communicates thoughts, emotions, belief systems, group identity, etc. Material expressions of culturally mediated symbols:
- intentional burial of the dead, with grave goods;
- figurative and abstract imagery;
- pigment use;
- body ornamentation.
Important effort to clarify definition and category of data we are dealing with. Yet if we follow these criteria, most artefacts from Lower (Acheulean) and Middle Paleolithic (60,000-50,000 years ago) are ruled out, because of lack of evidence for repeated patterning and intentionality.
Contribution of evolutionary psychology to origins of art
Is intelligence a single, general-purpose domain or a set of domains? Evolutionary psychologists answer: set of domains, which they call "mental modules", "multiple intelligences", "cognitive domains"; these "mental modules" interact, are connected;
Anatomically modern humans have better interaction between modules than other animals; therefore, able to perform more complex behaviors;
Four cognitive and physical processes exist:
- making visual images
- classification of images into classes
- intentional communication
- attribution of meaning to images
The first three are found in non-human primates and most hominids. Yet, only modern humans seem to have developed the fourth one.
For Neanderthals, intentional communication and classification were probably sealed in social intelligence module, while mark-making and attribution of meaning (both implicating material objects) were hidden. Only with arrival of modern humans, connection between modules made art possible by allowing intentional communication to escape into the domain of mark-making.
Problems with data and chronology
We could easily look at this transition in a smooth way: The passage from one industry to the next, one hominid to the next, etc. Evolutionary paths well structured and detailed, as in textbooks, but a bit too clear-cut, that is simplistic and reductionist.
After 1.8 million years ago, when H. ergaster/erectus moved out-of-Africa, the picture of human evolution becomes much more complex.
Situation due to several reasons:
- many more hominid species appear connected to global colonization and relative isolation;
- many cultural variations observed, illustrated by various stone tool industries, subsistence patterns, etc.
Overall, presence of differentiated cultural provinces in Africa and Eurasia which have their own evolutionary pace.
Dates don't seem to reveal a clear-cut divide between the Lower and Middle Paleolithic and don't fit anymore in a specific and rigorous time frame:
- H. erectus disappeared in most places around 300,000-200,000 yrs ago, although still found in Java up to 50,000 yrs ago;
- Archaic modern humans (Neanderthals) appeared around 130,000 yrs ago in Europe;
- Archaic modern humans (H. sapiens sapiens) appeared some time between 200,000 and 100,000 yrs ago in Africa;
- Acheulean stone tools were still in use beyond 200,000 yrs ago in many areas;
- The lithic industry (Mousterian) characteristic of the Middle Paleolithic appeared around 250,000 yrs ago in some areas (SW Asia);
- Subsistence patterns (hunting/scavenging), use of fire, habitats were still the basis of cultural adaptations in the Middle Paleolithic.
By focusing on a transition happening only at 50,000 yrs ago would be overlooking some major human innovations and evolutionary trends that took place earlier and on a much longer period.
We need to focus more on H. heidelbergensis and its material culture and other behavioral patterns to realize that the transition was not at 50,000 years ago, but between 600,000 and 60,000 yrs ago.
The revolution that wasn't
"Revolution" is in this context the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, with the development from 50,000 yrs ago of Homo sapiens sapiens, considered the only species anatomically AND behaviorally modern.
By "modern human behavior," we mean:
- Increased artifact diversity;
- Standardization of artefact types;
- Blade Technology;
- Worked bone and other organic materials;
- Personal ornaments and "art" or images;
- Structured living spaces;
- Economic intensification, reflected in the exploitation of aquatic or other resources that require specialized technology;
- Expanded exchange networks.
By overlooking and even not considering recent discoveries from the 1990s regarding the periods before 50,000 years ago, we are misled to consider the evidence after that date as the result of biological and cultural revolution.
Recent observations in Africa, Europe and Asia from sites between 600,000 and 250,000 years ago (Acheulean period) seem to document very different patterns: "The Revolution That Wasn't".
Evidence in the Lower Paleolithic
Stone tools: blade technology
- Blade technology appeared and disappeared at different points in time. Earliest evidence to date: Kapthurin Formation (Kenya) 550,000-300,000 BP
- Swartkrans (South Africa)
- Makapansgat (South Africa)
- Drimolen (South Africa)
- Schöningen (Germany) 400,000 years ago: Spears
Use of pigments (ochre)
- Kapthurin Formation (Kenya) 550,000-300,000 yrs ago
- Twin Rivers Cave (Zambia) 400,000-200,000 yrs ago
- Pomongwe (Zimbabwe) 250,000-220,000 yrs ago
- Terra Amata (France) 300,000 yrs ago
- Becov (Czech Republic) 250,000 yrs ago
- Pech de l'Azé (France) 400,000 yrs ago: Engraved bone
- Sainte-Anne I Cave (France): Engraved bone
- Bilzingsleben (Germany) 300,000 yrs ago: Large engraved rib
- Singi Talav (India) 300,000-150,000 yrs ago: Occurrence of non-utilitarian objects (Quartz crystals)
- Zhoukoudian (China): Occurrence of non-utilitarian objects
- Birket Ram (Israel): Human figurine
- Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania): Figurine
- Makapansgat (South Africa): Human figurine
- Tan-Tan (Morocco) 500,000-300,000 yrs ago: Human figurine
- Atapuerca (Spain) 350,000 yrs ago: H. heidelbergensis
- Flores Island (Indonesia) 780,000 yrs ago
Origins of language
Sometime during the last several million years, hominids evolved the ability to communicate much more complex and detailed information (about nature, technology, and social relationships) than any other creatures.
Yet we, cannot reconstruct the evolutionary history of language as we reconstruct the history of bipedalism because the ability to use language leaves no clear traces in the fossil record. Therefore, there is no consensus among paleoanthropologists about when language evolved.
But from new information learned from DNA testing by at the Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, the very stable gene FOXP2 (this is the gene that makes speech possible) suddenly changed approximately 250,000 years ago, 2 of the molecular units in the 715-unit DNA sequence abruptly changed. Neanderthals did not have this modification in their gene sequence, whereas Homo Sapien Sapiens did have this modification and were much more articulate .
We are going to try to clarify the current situation by reviewing the recent evidence on the topic, focusing on specific criteria that could reveal essential information on early forms of language:
- brain capacity
- brain asymmetry
- vocal apparatus
The intellectual and linguistic skills of early hominids
Reconstruction work on australopithecines indicates that their vocal tract was basically like that of apes, with the larynx and pharynx high up in the throat. This would not have allowed for the precise manipulation of air that is required for modern human languages. The early hominids could make sounds, but they would have been more like those of chimpanzees.
Their average cranial capacity was just a little short of the modern human minimum, and some individual erectus remains fall within the human modern range. It is difficult to be certain what this fact means in terms of intelligence.
Paleoanthropologist Ralph Holloway has looked at the structure of H. erectus brains. He made endocasts of the inside surfaces of fossil crania, because the inside of the skull reflects some of the features of the brain it once held.
One intriguing find is that the brains of H. erectus were asymmetrical: the right and left halves of the brain did not have the same shape. This is found to a greater extent in modern humans, because the two halves of the human brain perform different functions. Language and the ability to use symbols, for example, are functions of the left hemisphere, while spatial reasoning (like the hand-eye coordination needed to make complex tools) is performed by the right hemisphere. This hints that H. erectus also had hemisphere specialization, perhaps even including the ability to communicate through a symbolic language.
Further evidence of language use by H. erectus is suggested by the reconstruction of the vocal apparatus based on the anatomy of the cranial base. Even though the vocal apparatus is made up of soft parts, those parts are connected to bone; so the shape of the bone is correlated with the shape of the larynx, pharynx and other features. H. erectus had vocal tracts more like those of modern humans, positioned lower in the throat and allowing for a greater range and speed of sound production. Thus, erectus could have produced vocal communication that involved many sounds with precise differences.
Whether or not they did so is another question. But given their ability to manufacture fairly complex tools and to survive in different and changing environmental circumstances, H. ergaster/erectus certainly could have had complex things to "talk about". Therefore it is not out of question that erectus had a communication system that was itself complex, even though some scholars are against this idea.
Scientists struggle with the definition of human behavior, while dealing with evidence dating to the early part of the Lower Paleolithic (7-2 million years ago).
Definition of modern human behavior is not easier to draw. The answer to this topic should not be found only in the period starting at around 50,000 yrs ago. Evidence now shows that the period between 500,000 and 250,000 years ago was rich in attempts at elaborating new behavioral patterns, either material or more symbolic.
On another level, beginning about 1.6 million years ago, brain size began to increase over and beyond that which can be explained by an increase in body size. Some researchers point to evidence that suggests that from 1.6 million years to about 300,000 years ago, the brain not only dramatically increased in size but also was being neurally reorganized in a way that increased its ability to process information in abstract (symbolic) way. This symbolism allowed complex information to be stored, relationships to be derived, and information to be efficiently retrieved and communicated to others in various ways.
- Before 200,000 yrs ago, what is the relationship between H. erectus and H. heidelbergensis?
H. heidelbergensis seems to be the author of these new behavioral patterns, not H. erectus. H. heidelbergensis, especially in Africa, shows therefore evidence of new stone tool technology (blades), grinding stone and pigment (ochre) processing before 200,000 years ago. These new patterns connected with H. heidelbergensis could therefore be seen as critical advantages over H. erectus in the human evolutionary lineage.
- How Humans Evolved, Robert Boyd and Joan B. Silk, (1997)
- Biological Anthropology, Michael Park, (2002)
- Physical Anthropology, Philip L. Stein and Bruce M Rowe, (2003)