Re: Language evolution in early hominids?

Rebecca M Dean (rmd@U.Arizona.EDU)
Tue, 21 Nov 1995 15:24:34 -0700

On 21 Nov 1995, Julian Treadwell wrote:

> bodhi (Michael McBroom) (Michael McBroom) wrote:
> >
> >The subject of language co-evolving with hominids seems to be an old
> >one that has acquired new life in recent years. As a linguist just
> >beginning graduate studies, and a person who has developed a
> >fascination for hominid evolution, I'm interested in tying these
> >fields of study together, hopefully as a specialty. My interest
> >specifically lies in language acquisition in early hominids, although
> >I realize the fossil evidence avaiable to support much discussion one
> >way or the other is still of an extremely limited nature.
> >Nevertheless, any detailed further reading on the subject of a current
> >nature you may be able to offer would be greatly appreciated.
> >
> I'm a graduate archaeologist working in another field, so I'm a bit out
> of touch. However, I read recently about a study of fossil hominid brain
> morphology done using CAT-scans of fossil skulls to build computer images
> of the brains. This research was concerned with cooling of the brain by
> the vascular system, but it occurred to me at the time that the brain
> images might say something about development of the speech centre. They
> also might not, of course, as I'm no neurobiologist and don't know enough
> about it - but it's a thought.
I'm no linguist, or neurobiologist, but,as I understand the problem,
it is very difficult to tie down speech to one particular part of the
brain. Obviously, claims have been made that certain knobs and folds
correspond with speech. However, the reality seems to be quite a bit
more complex. Since scientists have a hard enough time finding the
"seat" of speech in a living brain, imagine how hard it is with a
fragmentary collection of hominid remains! One interesting approach to
recognizing the origins of language is to look not at the biology but at
the behavior of hominids. For example, I've heard that some linguists
argue that systematic production of lithic tools is a sign that language
has developed which allows adults to teach children orally how to make
these tools. (I sincerely doubt it, but its a start!) Perhaps a better
indicator may be the colonization of arid environments. This theory
basically posits that no technological breakthroughs were necessary for
humans to enter desertic regions (the technology used by modern h/gth in
this area is quite simple). But, in order to survive in these regions,
very complex social relationships had to be formed between individuals
and groups. If you assume that language was necessary for fully modern
social relationships, then the colonization of the deserts may be the
"sign" of language aquisition. (notice, however, that this would put full
language use at a VERY late date. . .)
Anyway, you may or may not agree with the theories. However, my
point stands: behavior may be a better reflection of language use than