Washington State University

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January 3rd, 2013

Who invented language?

Hubbell, Michigan

 Young chimpanzees from Jane Goodall sanctuary of Tchimpounga (Congo Brazzaville). by Delphine Bruyere, Wikimedia

Young chimpanzees from Jane Goodall sanctuary of Tchimpounga (Congo Brazzaville). by Delphine Bruyere, Wikimedia

Well, I might as well admit right up front – we don’t know. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some great arguments about who invented language. I got an earful about all this from Nancy McKee, who is a linguist and anthropologist here at WSU. That means she studies language and people.

It’s hard to say who invented language, says Professor McKee, because words don’t leave fossils. The only absolute evidence of language is writing. But think about this: As recently as the last century, the majority of the world’s population did not write. Of course that doesn’t mean they didn’t have language.

The oldest example of writing that we’ve found is a kind of writing called cuneiform, which was used by the Sumerians, people who lived in western Asia. The oldest examples of cuneiform are about 5,000 years old. Of course, language is much older than that.

But how do you figure out who invented language if there isn’t any written record?

First, says Professor McKee, you can look at the STRUCTURE of the brain. In other words, you can look at the brains of human ancestors to figure out whether they talked or not. The only problem with this is that brains don’t leave fossils either. All that lasts are the skulls, which are often broken, so you have to piece them together. Even so, scientists can tell quite a lot not only about how big the brain of the ancestor was, but how it was organized.

Another way to study when language came about is to study humans’ closest relatives, chimpanzees and the other great apes. First of all, they can’t talk, says Professor McKee. They COMMUNICATE. Slime molds communicate, she says. But slime molds don’t TALK.

When chimpanzees see food, they go UH! HUH! EEEE! HUH! HUH! Or something like that. Of course that lets the other chimps know about the food. But the chimp doesn’t necessarily WANT the others to know. In other words, they don’t MEAN to say UH! HUH! and so on. What controls these sounds is a really old area of the brain called the “limbic area.” You know when you step on a tack and yell? That sound comes from the limbic area. It isn’t something that you SAY or mean to say.

In other words, says Professor McKee, much of what chimps say is involuntary. As Noam Chomsky, another linguist, has said, saying a chimpanzee can talk is like saying a man who jumps off the Empire State Building can fly!

Now, Professor McKee’s opinion isn’t quite so extreme. She thinks that chimps really are pretty smart. It’s just that they’re really dumb compared to humans. For example, they do not talk about the nature of evil. However, when they learn sign language and tell the human studying them that they want some food, they mean they want some food. It’s not just a “conditioned response.”

So what does this have to do with the invention of language? Chimpanzee brains are about one-third the size of modem human brains. If chimps can “say” through sign language simple things like “I want dinner,” then human ancestors with much larger brains probably could do just as well and probably better.

So what ancestors are we talking about here? Professor McKee thinks it was these folks called “Homo erectus,” who had brains twice as large as chimps and who seem to have evolved about 2 million years ago from an earlier earlier ancestor called Australopithecus. (Just sound it out and say it loudly.)

The scientists who think about language are basically divided into two camps. Some think that language just happened all at once. SOMETHING very remarkable happened somewhere along the line. Maybe it was some kind of evolutionary adaptation. For whatever reason, these scientists believe there’s a BIG BREAK between humans and other animals that communicate.

Professor McKee belongs to the second camp. She believes that language is just the endpoint of a gradual evolutionary process-beginning with slime mold-that simply became more and more elaborate.

But still, when did it become “language”?

Somewhere between 2 million and 200,000 years ago, she says. Well, that certainly narrows it down!

Still, she doesn’t think that Homo erectus perfected language. It might have taken until about 40,000 years ago before there was anything like modern language.

Maybe we’re learning to keep our heads about us

January 6th, 2012

Dear Dr. Universe,
Why is there war in the world?
Rafael Garcia
Porto Alegre, Brazil

Soldiers from the Division cross the Rhine River in assault boats, 1945. Wikipedia

Soldiers from the Division cross the Rhine River in assault boats, 1945. Wikipedia

I’ve got good news and bad news. First the bad news. Humans, especially men, are violent by nature. It makes them feel important. And the good news? Humans are a lot less violent than they used to be!

I tracked down John Patton, who is an anthropologist here at Washington State University. He studies the influence of human evolution on politics, violence and warfare.

Needless to say, you can’t very well study a subject like this in a laboratory. So Professor Patton went to live with the Achuar people in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Achuar are related to the Shuar, who live in the same valley.

Have you ever seen a shrunken head in a museum? They were shrunk by the Shuar. In the recent past, when Shuar boys were ready to become men, in a “rite of passage” they took hallucinogens, traveled to a sacred waterfall and met an animal spirit. After this, they went off to find the head of an enemy to shrink.

Unfortunately for the Achuar, most of these heads belonged to them.

Even without the headshrinking, the Shuar and Achuar are pretty violent. Traditionally, an Achuar male had a 50 percent chance of being killed by another.

As you probably have figured, these are pretty intense people!

They also make very interesting subjects for Professor Patton to study.

From what anthropologists can tell, the homicide rate for men living in tribal societies is generally about 30 percent. This was before they were affected by outside influences. So the Achuar’s homicide rate is higher than most. So much the better for studying WHY they are so violent.

Let’s think about a few basic ideas about evolution and violence. What seems to make all living things tick is the desire to reproduce and pass on their genes. Whether you’re a flower or a salamander or a human, you are driven by your wish to pass along your genetic traits to the next generation. You think you’ve got something special, and you’d like that to continue after you die.

So—our goal is to pass along our genes. Simple enough. But if that’s the case, why would a soldier go to war and be willing to die for his country? It’s pretty hard to pass along your genes if you’re dead.

And there you have it—one of the main contradictions of human evolution and behavior. How does this make sense?

Professor Patton believes that young men will risk getting killed in order to gain status, to be important in the society and to have more kids to give his genes to! He bases this idea both on his research and on earlier studies.

For example, his adviser, Napoleon Chagnon, found that among the Yanomamo of Venezuela, certain men who are very accomplished killers have on average two and a half times more wives and more than three times as many children as do their more pacifist brothers.

In other societies, we can also see that high status leads to more wives (and mistresses) and more children. In other words, according to Professor Patton’s hypothesis, being a great warrior (being willing to kill and risk your own life) gains you high status, which in our evolutionary past brought males more wives and kids, which fits right in with evolution!

So according to this thinking, humans kill each other for status. You’ve got to realize I’ve really simplified things here. Regardless, that’s not a very cheery thought, is it?

But think about this. As violent as we think our society is, tribal societies (which we came from a long time ago) have homicide rates about 50 times higher than ours. This comparison doesn’t distinguish between homicide and warfare. After all, says Professor Patton, war is just killing okayed by your country. So this rate includes all our wars and atomic bombings and so on. Even including these things, still it seems like maybe we’ve made some progress.

Even though humans can still be pretty awful toward each other, MAYBE—with the help of government and culture—they are getting a little better at keeping from killing each other. I think that’s pretty good news!

Now keep in mind that not every scientist agrees with Professor Patton. There are other ideas for why people are the way they are. But these arguments, backed up by serious research, are what science is all about.