On when speech may have originated

A new paper suggests that the Kebara 2 Neanderthals, some 60,000 years ago, not only had the capability but also used speech. The capability for speech itself has now been pushed back to the common ancestors of Anatomically Modern Humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans to about 500,000 years ago. The picture we have of Neanderthals is now of a fairly sophisticated and complex species:

  1. Neanderthals may have spoken in a similar way to modern humans.
  2. Neanderthals are our closest extinct human relatives.
  3. Neanderthal DNA is over 99% identical to modern human DNA.
  4. Several theories for Neanderthal extinction exist, including impacts of climate change, competition with human beings, and the possibility that Neanderthals and humans interbred and were ‘absorbed’ into the human species.
  5. Neanderthals lived in Eurasia 200,000 – 30,000 years ago in the Pleistocene Epoch
  6. Neanderthals and our human ancestors lived on Earth at the same time.
  7. Neanderthals lived in family groups and looked after their sick and infirm. 
  8. Neanderthals used tools made from bone, stone, antlers and other materials. 
  9. Neanderthals used fire, and even ate cooked vegetables. 

Moreover it is clear that all non-Africans carry some 3% of Neanderthal genes. And so – in my speculation – it would be perfectly consistent with not only the Neanderthals of the Kebara 2 study having speech, but also with all Neanderthals from about 200,000 years ago, having some form of – at least – rudimentary speech.

I have no doubt that speech originated from an intense need to communicate and developed in complexity and sophistication as the complex needs of the societies that developed required more nuanced communication. And if this happened 500,000 years ago then I find it not implausible that there are connections between the controlled use of fire, the growth of complex social interactions, the need for nuanced communications and the development of speech.

Visions arise of camp fires and a society with time for gatherings and then – inevitably – for story-telling! And for tall tales. Lying after all is a construct of language!

But speech was probably invented many times and only became language when some critical mass of people shared the same sounds for the same meanings. Within a single tribe or troop this critical mass for the beginnings of a rudimentary language was probably no more than a handful of individuals. What the first words ever spoken were can only be a matter of speculation. A case can be made for the “ma”, “ba” and “pa” sounds being the first to be repeated but also among the earliest ever words for communication would have been danger, here, there, up, down, you, me, stop, come and go.

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