Did Homo erectus speak?

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.

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9 Responses to Did Homo erectus speak?

  1. I agree on not buying Chomsky’s theory. It’s always seemed more plausible to me that language evolved gradually over several hundred thousand years. We might regard what Homo erectus had as proto-language, but it would have been far more sophisticated than the alarm calls monkeys make.

    There definitely seems to have been some kind of development with Homo sapiens leading to behavioral modernity, but it was probably much more subtle than a transition from non-language to the modern full blown version.

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  2. What if the underlying assumption that Erectus built seacraft is wrong? We should look at this article – One incredible ocean crossing may have made human evolution possible (https://theconversation.com/one-incredible-ocean-crossing-may-have-made-human-evolution-possible-157479). “But it’s since emerged that rafts of vegetation or floating islands – stands of trees swept out to sea – may actually explain many animal distributions across the world.” Homo Erectus may not build a raft but was traveling on the floating island, as other primates (without language) did. As for 20 humans needed to set up a settlement – they could be just descendants of a first couple.

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    • James Cross says:

      If you read the article, I think you’ll see the argument isn’t dependent solely on seacraft building.

      “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”.

      “Further, archaeologists have discovered 400,000-year-old wooden thrusting and throwing spears in lower Saxony (called the ‘Schöningen spears’), which suggest a robust hunting culture. Thrusting spears, for example, require at least one member of a group to get close enough to the prey, such as mastodons, to pierce them with the weapon. Hunting culture entails cooperation and planning with others”.

      There is also the rather implausible alternative that language appeared suddenly in Homo sapiens without precedent in progenitor species.

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      • I have to ask the opinion of my relative, who has a Ph.D. in linguistics. He wrote several books and a massive number of articles on linguistics. I remember he told me that linguists could not figure out languages from several thousand years ago.

        To me, any theory (leap or no leap) about languages from millions of years ago, if it is not supported by linguistics, looks like speculation based on circumstantial evidence, based on circumstantial evidence, based on circumstantial evidence, without the serious possibility for us to assess its credibility.

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        • James Cross says:

          I think you have this time frame mostly wrong. Homo erectus is first identified in the fossil record 1.9-2 million years ago. However, it is found in the record up to 100,000 years ago. So the time frame isn’t millions of years ago but no more than 2 million and possibly less than 1 million. Fossils of it are found from Africa to China. Its fossil presence in Asia was used by some scholars years ago to suggest n Asian origin for humans. The longevity and worldwide distribution of Homo erectus in the fossil record argues in itself for some unique capabilities.

          During this time, there were changes in body size, encephalization, sophistication of tools, and many other things. I don’t think the author is arguing necessarily that language arose all at once 2 million years. Like everything else, it was probably an evolving development over the entire 2 million years and was passed as a capability to many descendent species including the Neanderthals and Sapiens.

          This Wiki page shows the current phylogeny.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo

          This also isn’t a question solely for linguistics. Nobody is trying to “figure out” a language but only more generally, did they likely have a language, and perhaps how it might have worked in basic terms.

          Of course, there is always some degree of speculation when discussing “soft” culture of any kind in the context of archaeology. What we have left of Homo erectus are fragments of skeletons, tools they probably made and used, some evidence of their habitats, and the likelihood that we are in some way distant descendants with a quite sophisticated language capability. You are left with either the conclusion some have made that this language ability in humans arose out of the blue sometime recently or this capability like tool making has evolved from humble beginnings maybe a million years ago or more.

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  3. I think this article makes a pretty good case, and I’ve actually been aware of it for a while. It’s dated February 28, 2018. I recall discussing it a bit with Mike, not that my search brought up where. Apparently in a very long comment I did bring it up with Lee however:
    https://selfawarepatterns.com/2018/09/09/inflate-and-explode-or-deflate-and-preserve/#comment-23582

    If around a million years ago one variety of human was lingual enough to build sea faring boats and settle new lands with such voyages, one question would be why it took so long for civilizations to emerge? Natural language is such an inherent element of the modern human that I’d think it would have taken many hundreds of thousands of years to evolve. But if that’s the case I’m not sure why the next great power revolution, or the specialized occupations associated with civilizations, would have taken so long to emerge?

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    • James Cross says:

      I tried to address this many years ago in another post.

      Lost History: Revenge of the Nerds

      I think I described even archaic Homo sapiens as something like super intelligent wolves. I don’t think humans had domesticated themselves sufficiently to create large social groups. That required more sophisticated language and culture making abilities. There may have a number of genetic changes required but likely the delay in the maturation of prefrontal cortex had a key role since it allowed for a greatly extended time for enculturation. In other words, humans are less hard-wired at birth than other species, even pre-modern Homo, and a lot of the wiring gets done under the influence of culture. This is especially true with language where there are critical time period in child development that are associated with language mastery.

      I speculate a lot of this final phase of genetic possibly occurred in a relatively small group of humans in Southern Africa approximately 70-100,000 years ago. That group migrated to East Africa and from there populated (conquered?) the rest of world, displacing prior versions of humans in the process.

      Out of South Africa

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      • So culture might have been the key? Maybe so, not that I’d think that culture would take so much time to evolve. Anyway I guess to add to your speculation, maybe homo erectus had this around a million years ago as evidence here suggests, but for some reason didn’t spread it far enough fast enough. Maybe it apocalyptically lost its skills in language and other elements of culture even given its advanced abilities. Then this evolved again in Homo sapiens, perhaps in the 70 to 100 thousand year ago range in southern Africa as in your earlier speculation?

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        • James Cross says:

          I think it had some culture/language ability but not at the level of modern humans. Something in between chimpanzees/bonobos and humans. Erectus was fairly successful. As I indicated in another comment it spread from Africa across India to China and Indonesia. I think it simply evolved into other species and one of the branches had Neanderthals and Sapiens. Sapiens went on to evolve the modern capabilities partly through increasing delay in the maturation of PFC. Interesting to note that some Erectus brains are in the size range of modern humans and many Neanderthals actually had larger brains. So it wasn’t brain size by itself. Some evidence cited in one of the papers suggest Neanderthals had PFC maturation rates more similar to apes. So likely the big change was something related to enculturation.

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