What is the greatest human technological innovation? Fire? The wheel? Penicillin? Clothes? Google? None of these come close. As you read this, you are using the winning technology. The greatest tool in the world is language. Without it there would be no culture, no literature, no science, no history, no commercial enterprise or industry. The genus Homo rules the Earth because it possesses language. But how and when did we build this kingdom of speech? And who is ‘we’? After all, Homo sapiens is just one of several species of humans that have walked the Earth. Does ‘we’ refer to our genus, Homo, or to our species, sapiens?
To discover the answers to these questions, we need to travel back in time at least 1.9 million years ago to the birth of Homo erectus, as they emerged from the ancient process of primate evolution. Erectus had nearly double the brain size of any previous hominin, walked habitually upright, were superb hunters, travelled the world, and sailed to ocean islands. And somewhere along the way they got language. Yes, erectus. Not Neanderthals. Not sapiens. And if erectus invented language, this means that Neanderthals, born more than a million years later, entered a world already linguistic.
Likewise, our species would have emerged into a world that already had language. In spite of the fact that many paleoanthropologists view erectus as little more than a skinny gorilla, of few accomplishments, far too stupid to have language, and lacking a vocal apparatus capable of intelligible speech, the evidence seems overwhelming that they had language. Erectus needed language. They were capable of language. And, though often denied in evolutionary studies, the ‘leap’ to language was little more than a long series of baby steps, requiring no mutations, nor any complex grammar. In fact, the language of erectus would have been every bit as much a ‘real language’ as any modern language. [Continue reading…]