Re: Human Language. (long post)

Michael McBroom (
Wed, 25 Dec 1996 01:30:36 -0500

John Waters wrote:

> > It seems clear, as a result of research conducted by Alan
> Walker and
> > others, that due to secondary atriciality in newborn H.
> erectus
> > babies, the species had to have had a diet very rich in
> protein.
> > Unless H. erectus spent all its time locating kills from
> which to
> > scavenge scraps, hunting was clearly a primary occupation
> of the
> > species.
> JW: Right. Alan Walker also noted that H. erectus had a
> much smaller gut than the Australopithicenes, which
> suggested more meat and less fruit etc. But did H. erectus
> hunt, or gather shellfish? Did H. erectus have a hunting
> anatomy (whatever that is?).
> And since this thread is about language, Alan Walker also
> claimed that H. erectus was dumb, by which he meant the
> species had no language. Is this correct? Can you hunt
> without language? Can you make war without language?
> If H. erectus could manage without language for nearly two
> million years of its existence, why did H.s.s need
> language?
> Could it be that language wasn't actually needed by the
> species, but arrived as a result of another long-term
> evolutionary process?

Hi John,

There is a component missing from this discussion that must be included:
the linguistic component. I am a student of linguistics, currently in
the grad program at Cal State Fullerton, and my specific area of study
is the biological origins of language. To me, this is a deeply
fascinating topic.

I have read Walker and Shipman's _Wisdom_of_the_Bones_ (1996) -- is this
the source you're referring to? Walker based his conclusions on a
rather novel find that tends to show indirect evidence of a lack of
refined speech capabilities in H. erectus, the clincher being the
smaller opening in the thoracic vertebrae as compared to H. sapiens.
His reasoning was that H. erectus lacked the fine control over the
diaphragm muscles to produce articulate speech (the smaller opening
meant a smaller spinal cord with less nerve bundles being tied into the
muscles in the thoracic region). Well . . . maybe, maybe not. Walker
is not a linguist, and a reduced capability for fine breath control does
not necessarily obviate the capability for language -- or a speech based
communication system of some sort.

All the best work I've seen recently on this subject is being done by
linguists. I would recommend that you try and locate any or all of the
following for a very good overview of the subject:

Bickerton, Derek. 1990. _Language and Species_. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Lieberman, Philip. 1975. _On the Origin of Language: an Introduction to
the Evolution of Human Speech_. New York: MacMillan
________________. 1984. _The Biology and Evolution of Language_.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Pinker, Steven. 1994. _The Language Instinct_. New York: Morrow.

All three linguists accept as a given that language is a biological
trait, and as such is adaptive. Bickerton's work is, by far, the most
thought-provoking. It's also quite theoretical, but makes very good
sense to me. It is assimilable, albeit with a degree of difficulty, for
the non-linguist. Bickerton proposes that language -- or protolanguage,
to be more specific -- actually preceded cognition, or at least the sort
of abstract, self-aware cognition that we consider to be unique to
humans. He argues that cognition did not arise until true, full-blown
language did. Lieberman is well-known for his exhaustive studies of the
vocal tract. He has conducted extensive research on the supralaryngeal
airways in hominoids, including in-depth comparative phonetic analysis
between the vocal tracts of chimps and humans, earlier hominids and
humans, etc. He has conducted acoustic tests of the most likely airway
configurations of various species in order to determine the possible
vowel sounds that can be produced. Pinker is a psycholinguist who
shows, through studies of aphasics and other data, how language must
necessarily be an instinct.

Both Bickerton and Lieberman are very well versed in evolutionary theory
-- Pinker somewhat less so.

Based both on my readings and my ponderings of the subject, I believe
the following to be most likely true:

* Australopithecines were bipedal apes. Their vocal tracts appear to be
identical with that of the apes, thus their calls systems were likely no
more elaborate than those of the apes.

* H. habilis (or at least some specimens referred to as H. habilis) show
the beginnings of speech capabilities (flexure of the basocranial area,
arching of the palate, etc.). It has been argued by some (and I concur)
that these traits, which point to the beginning of rudimentary language
abilities, were that which caused the divergence of Homo from

* Based on morphological evidence, early H. erectus most likely had a
limited form of protolanguage. Later specimens exhibited some
additional refinements, but still no true language.

* Neanderthal was an evolutionary dead-end. Based on artifact and
burial evidence, it would appear that Neanderthal had some sort of
fairly complex system of communication and representation, but it still
appears to have fallen short of a full-blown language system.
Neanderthal's vocal tract was functionally not much different from that
of H. erectus.

* Archaic Homo sapiens -- this is where the evidence gets interesting.
Lieberman (1975) shows casts made of the supralaryngeal vocal tract
belonging to several specimens that have come to be labeled as "Archaic
H. sapiens." While the exterior morphology of these skulls still bears
close resemblence to H. erectus and H. Neanderthalensis, the casts of
the supralaryngeal tract indicate that important -- nay, *crucial*,
changes had begun to take place. The vocal tracts of these archaic
specimens are well on their way to having the same appearance as that of
H. sapiens. It is most likely that true language originated with
archaic H. sapiens some 300 to 500 kya.

As to your "why" question above, the answer is simple. Language ability
is the most powerful adaptive trait H. sapiens possesses. Even
protolanguage was enough of an adaptive benefit to cause it to be
selected for, and not against. But once true language emerged, however,
it is very likely that the trait went to fixation rapidly in a small
breeding population located somewhere in Africa, from whence it spread.


Michael McBroom
CSUF Linguistics