Re: Speech in H. erectus

Brad Woodcock (
14 Jul 1995 08:10:47 GMT (Harry Erwin) writes:

>I just finished browsing Tattersall, the Fossil Trail. He makes some very
>good arguments about the probable lack of speech in early H. erectus. In
>particular, he points out three features in the KNMER-15000 skeleton that
>suggest the Turkana Boy lacked language:
>1. The evidence of the small diameter spinal column that his chest lacked
>the detailed motor control that we have,
This seems awfully weak. What is the actually %age difference (after
adjusting for overall body size) between KNMER-15k and AMHS? I don't
remember it being significant enough to say much about the total nerve
density going to the larynx area.
>2. The flat base of the skull indicating that there was insufficient room
>for a laryngial tract that could support complex language, and
This is a wide misconception. Even if the flattening of the base of the
skull did restrict the laryngial tract as much as some people claim, it
still would not restrict the variety of vowel sounds that could be produced
to the point that communication through speech would be impossible. As I
recall, it would take out the differentiation between different a, e and i
sounds, but would leave a, e, i, o and u. That would be a drop from 8 or 9
vowel sounds to a mere 5, but there are active languages that commonly use
less than 6 standard vowel sounds (with intonation, glottal stops, and
placement within the word substituting in some cases). (The only citation I
have for this information is from a lecture given by Janet Keller the head
of the Anthropology department at the University of Illinois).
>3. The conical chest shape (similar to that of Lucy and better adapted to
>climbing than our enlarged chest) that indicates he lacked chest volume.
As someone has already mentioned, the extent to which the chest was conical
has been called into considerable doubt by other reconstructions. Once
again, I'm also curious about the total %age difference after body size is
taken out, even in the most conical configuration. Anybody know the specs
on this?

>This told me a second thing as well--he probably was not good at holding
>his breath while swimming.
While chest capacity is important for holding your breath, many animals have
adaptations in their metabolism which allow for significantly more efficient
oxygen use for extended periods of time. In particular, there is a type
of seal which slows parts of it's system down considerably while diving in
order to stay under for longer periods of time.

>Harry Erwin
>Home Page: (try again if necessary)
>PhD student in comp neurosci: "Glitches happen" & "Meaning is emotional"

Brad Woodcock The Trolls Guild "We're here to make you appreciate normal people."
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