History Capsule: The Anatomical Traces of the Emergence of Language During Hominization
The larynx is the human organ responsible for the mechanics of sound. Because the larynx is composed of soft, cartilaginous tissues that do not become fossilized, its evolutionary history is hard to investigate directly. But anthropologists have found some anatomical features of the skull that are associated with the low position of the larynx that makes speech possible. In the great apes, the base of the skull is flat, whereas in modern humans, it is clearly flexed. From this difference, we can deduce that the oldest fossil hominids, who lived from 6 to 3 million years ago, could not articulate clear sounds. In contrast, among the African descendants of Lucy (genus Paranthropus), who lived from 2.5 to 1 million years ago, the base of the skull is highly flexed and the brain is relatively larger. Things become more complicated with their contemporaries, Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis. These “first humans” had an only slightly flexed skull base, which would indicate that their larynx did not enable them to speak. But they also had several characteristics favourable to the emergence of language: an even larger brain, some traces of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas inside their skulls, and their use of manufactured stone tools to obtain more meat when they hunted. Did they speak? Many researchers think that their hunting way of life may have favoured the emergence of symbolic communication and the expression of forms of articulate language.
It is with the species Homo ergaster, however, that the evidence of the faculty of speech becomes truly convincing. The first piece of such evidence is the larger surface of the associative cortical areas of the brain in this species. Another is that its locomotor skeleton indicates that it could run long distances and therefore had the fine control over respiratory flows associated with a low position of the larynx. Still another is that while it was a true hunting species, Homo ergaster also began to build shelters, which required new forms of co-operation and expressive abilities that would have been possible only with an elaborate language.
These observations are a far cry from the time not that long ago when language was thought to have originated with Homo sapiens. They also render obsolete, at least from the standpoint of the origins of language, the old distinction between the “incomplete humans” (of whom the Neanderthals were thought to have been the last examples) and Homo sapiens (whether Cro-Magnons or Homo sapiens sapiens). There is nothing in the Neanderthals’ anatomy that would have prevented them from using articulate language. Moreover, their technological and cultural activities were similar in all respects to those of the first representatives of Homo sapiens. Between 110 000 and 50 000 years ago, both species lived in the Middle East and buried their dead.
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