100,000 years ago the roots of our modern social behaviour had already been established.
An effectively organized communication system, comparable to today’s one and the expansion of early modern men appear to be two cardinal and independent phenomena, but actually, they are branches linked by the same driving force: language. Often seen as an innate faculty and taken for granted in everyday life, understanding its origins can be really intriguing: it has been, in fact, the foundation for modern society and, no less, a fundamental evolutionary factor.
Two observations of the Italian geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza could allow to better develop the issue. In 2004, he stated that the cultural development that has generated our modern social behaviour has occurred, for the most part, in the last hundred thousand years, most likely because around that date, the small population which gave rise to modern men had achieved today’s ability to communicate.
Also: what caused the expansion of the first modern specimen? This population was certainly not the only one living in the world, but for sure certain qualities related to its intellectual development were unique. There are many reasons to think of language as a fundamental reason.
When and how?
That the first evidences of a rudimentary communicative system were oral is now outdated theory.
New Zealand psychologist and neuroscientist M. Corballis points out, instead, the fundamental role of the deittic gesture, that is the manual gesture, tracing, thus, the origins of language to 2 million years ago, as the first Homo specimens appeared. In fact, the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees should have been better equipped for developing a voluntary communication system based on visible gestures rather than sounds.
This hypothesis is based on the discovery of mirror neurons in monkey brains, brain cells fundamental for detecting and understanding the meaning of other people’s actions. Briefly, over the millennia, gestural mimesis became increasingly arbitrary and symbolic; communication added facial involvement and it incorporated vocalizations. In short, the vocal language has defined itself as an autonomous way of communication in Homo Sapiens 50.000 years ago.
A series of lucky coincidences
It is also astonishing to consider that this whole process was not mechanically and a priori directed towards a purpose; it was rather a succession of phenomena whose result is fortunately the current one.
Just consider that our body conformation does not show an inclination to language at all!
First of all, the communicative faculty is not even equipped with a specific apparatus: the oral cavity (tongue, lips, teeth…), just as the lungs, are organs primarily responsible for other functions, such as chewing or breathing, and only secondarily, through a process called “exaptation”, they have
assumed the verbal function.
Furthermore, in grown-up humans the larynx is located much deeper in the throat than it used to be
in Neanderthals or babies. This allows for greater sound modulation and production of different phones. Also the standing position was a blessing, due to a good fate: reducing the body surface exposed to the sun, a gradual cooling of the blood in the skull occurred, which thus freed itself from the constraints of temperature that affected its grow.
Finally, being bipedal rather than quadrupedal allowed the use of the limbs for other functions, including the fundamental deictic gesture, mentioned above. A genuine stroke of luck!
Culture as a method of adaptation
Many times dramatic scenes are shown in documentaries about the ford of a stream committed by mammals, tragically interrupted by the appearance of predators hidden in the waters. In such cases, survival is definitely due to quick intuition and good luck. However, a young specimen of Sapiens crossing the road will surely be in an advantaged condition, since it is accompanied, but the most important thing is that it will also have been informed in advance about potential dangers, because someone will have already experienced that situation and he will have been able to warn him.
Unlike what other animal beings possess, this is just one of the great advantages of language: being able to inherit the awareness of previous generations and building an encyclopaedia of knowledge, brick by brick, ancestor after ancestor. Animals’ condition is different; they are condemned to a sort of “eternal present”, since after the death of a specimen, its progeny starts again to accumulate knowledge from scratch.
Moreover, exploiting languages as a tool for survival and adaptation is not just about prehistoric times, but an everyday occurrence. Thanks to languages, we know a priori which foods are edible and which are not, we know and develop cures for diseases and we can try to escape natural disasters, to name just a few examples.
Should we still be considered like animals or not?
The last fascinating aspect is that this incredible faculty has questioned our status as animal beings for a long time. Would the faculty of language be so powerful – in the most literally sense: capable of achieving so much quantitatively and qualitatively – as to create a discontinuity between us and other living beings? Basically there are two schools of thought. According to Cartesian theory, this would be the case: in man, language takes the place of what was the rational soul, which was a discriminating instrument between man and animal. Therefore, language introduces a discontinuity in nature.
On the contrary, Darwin circumscribes this subject within a qualitative point of view, in comparison to other animals: we possess a more developed gift, which, however, is not absent in other living forms.
In short, animals or not, we do have for sure an extraordinary tool for cultural evolution – not biological as evolution usually is. It is difficult to shed light on an issue for which the data we possess are not complete and they probably will never be.
One thing is certain, however: it is strange how many essential things happen by chance.
By Noemi Manghi