I’ve been reading a lot lately about the evolution of humans, for the big picture `bird’s eye’ view because that’s what I love – and who doesn’t? Besides Quantum Field Theory and Quantum Gravity, the emergence of intelligence/language and intelligence in and of itself is just the most interesting thing in our universe. So get ready to hum ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ and read along while I try to summarize for myself what I believe to have learned the past few days.
As members of the species homo sapiens we belong to the order of primates. Of course, this subsumes many more non-language-y members than the opposite, so let’s zoom in a little (since of course I’m having the capacity for language in the back of my mind).
A wonderful evolutionary tree chart is the following:
As far as I understand (disclaimer: I’m a complete amateur regarding everything in this post and I’m happy to revise anything here) it shows e.g. when the Hominidae and Hylobatidae families last had a common ancestor and what they split into.
Further down the road the Hominini diverged from what would become the Orang-utans (Pongo) and Gorillas (duh) which is where it starts to gets interesting.
The Hominini split into the chimpanzees (Pan) and the Australopithecines (roughly 7 to 5 million years ago).
As far as I could gather, more or less everybody agrees that australopithecines did not have the capacity for language. But this is where the agreement ends.
Around 2.5 million years ago, the genus homo appeared, with homo habilis its first representative (baam-baam-baaaaam …. ta-ta!).
What people believe about the linguistic capacities of the early members of the genus homo depends on the view they have for the emergence of language. Some ascribe to the continuity hypothesis, that is that the capacity for language developed gradually. For example, some propose that already homo neanderthalensis had some form of (possibly comparably primitive) language (*throwing bone)
Others believe that, on an evolutionary timescale, language emerged in an instant, possibly even through a single mutation that endowed humans with the innate capacity for language. These folks also often propose that at first not even anatomically modern humans were able to speak. AMH is the species that we belong to, homo sapiens, that emerged roughly 200,000 years ago (although there is some recent evidence that we might be as old as 300,000 years
The crucial step supposedly happened in the transition from anatomically modern to behaviourally modern humans roughly 70,000 to 50,000 years ago.
From this point on there is clear and undisputed archaeological evidence of complex behaviour and a rapidly evolving culture (“Great Leap Forward”). The hypothesis then is that only with the advent of behavioural modernity humans developed language (*cue Blue Danube).
To sum up this amateur overview: When it comes to language (as opposed to mere communication), we can restrict ourselves to the genus homo; what happens then, however, is still up to debate, and is probably not going to be resolved anytime soon due to the difficulty of obtaining reliable evidence.
But hopefully we can resolve this incredibly fascinating issue before we evolve into star children, obliged to floating around in space.
PS: I just noticed that the first tree in this linguistics blog is not a syntax tree – I’m proud!