Did Homo erectus speak? is a new article on Aeon by Daniel Everett. The author makes the argument that the evidence of fairly sophisticated culture and technology by Home erectus suggests that this predecessor of modern humans likely had some form of language. This would also mean Neanderthals and other descendants of Homo erectus also likely had language.
Erectus settlements show evidence of culture – values, knowledge structures and social structure. This evidence is important because all these elements enhance each other. Evidence from the erectus settlement studied at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel, for example, suggests not only that erectus controlled fire but that their settlements were planned. One area was used for plant-food processing, another for animal-material processing, and yet another for communal life. Erectus, incredibly, also made sea craft. Sea travel is the only way to explain the island settlements of Wallacea (Indonesia), Crete and, in the Arabian Sea, Socotra. None of these were accessible to erectus except by crossing open ocean, then and now. These island cultural sites demonstrate that erectus was capable of constructing seaworthy crafts capable of carrying 20 people or more. According to most archaeologists, 20 individuals would have been the minimum required to found the settlements discovered.
To build and operate boats, erectus needed to talk about what material to collect, where to collect it, how to put the material together and so on – just what we ourselves would need to talk about in order to build a raft. In addition to the assembly of a raft, the planning for the trip as a whole, the reasoning for the undertaking, would have all required language.
We can therefore conclude that erectus required language.
The author goes on to define language as the ability to communicate with symbols. Complex grammar is not required. He continues with a proposal for how language evolved from tool use through development of icons and symbols, and association of sounds with symbols.
It has been noted before that many of the same brain regions used in tool making are the same or closely related to the regions used for language, thus hinting at an association between tool making and language. I find it not likely a coincidence that humans are only species that make sophisticated tools and also have a sophisticated language.
I have doubted the idea of some linguists (Chomsky most notably) that language materialized with no predecessor ability about 70 thousands years. I do believe there was a major shift in cognitive ability that included the capability for sophisticated and recursive grammar in about that time frame. This I discussed that in a previous post. Prior to modern language capabilities, I suspect, there was a form of language intermediate between the primitive signaling found in other species and modern language. This language might have been sign language combined with something similar to the primitive pidgin languages that spontaneously arise when people, not sharing similar languages, are thrown together and forced to communicate.