Many experts believe that language has been a late development in human history. As Daniel Everett puts it, “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.”
Everett (pictured) disagrees and asks us to look at some facts from paleontology:
Evidence that erectus had language comes from their settlements, their art, their symbols, their sailing ability and their tools. Erectus settlements are found throughout most of the old world. And, most importantly for the idea that erectus had language, open oceans were not barriers to their travel.
Erectus settlements show evidence of culture – values, knowledge structures and social structure. This evidence is important because all these elements enhance each other. Evidence from the erectus settlement studied at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel, for example, suggests not only that erectus controlled fire but that their settlements were planned. One area was used for plant-food processing, another for animal-material processing, and yet another for communal life. Erectus, incredibly, also made sea craft. Sea travel is the only way to explain the island settlements of Wallacea (Indonesia), Crete and, in the Arabian Sea, Socotra. None of these were accessible to erectus except by crossing open ocean, then and now. These island cultural sites demonstrate that erectus was capable of constructing seaworthy crafts capable of carrying 20 people or more. According to most archaeologists, 20 individuals would have been the minimum required to found the settlements discovered.Daniel Everett, “Did Homo erectus speak” at Aeon (February 28, 2018)
He certainly has a point. It is hard to imagine organizing the construction, launch, and navigation of such craft without language. How would an erectus get co-operation without explaining the idea?
Because the stone tools of erectus were simple and slow to evolve, some have rushed to conclude that they lacked intelligence for language. But stone-cutting implements are simply not the whole story. The evidence for erectus island settlements means that they built water-transport craft. Erectus seem to have had art as well, as exemplified in the 250,000-year-old Venus of Berekhat Ram.Daniel Everett, “Did Homo erectus speak” at Aeon (February 28, 2018)
Venus of Berehkat Ram? It’s a pebble intended to represent, some paleontologists think, a woman. If so, then people could think symbolically over 230,000 years ago, and symbol systems are the basis of language.
On the other hand, other paleontologists think it is just natural erosion.
Everett, author of How Language Began (2017), is no stranger to controversy. He has contested eminent linguist Noam Chomsky’s central thesis that language is hardwired in humans, arguing rather that “language was invented by humankind, and is not the result of its being hardwired into mankind’s brain,” as a reviewer puts it.
His longstanding disagreement with Chomsky (1928–) formed the subject of Tom Wolfe’s book, The Kingdom of Speech (2016). Wolfe (1930–2018) chronicled Everett’s discovery of a group of people in Brazil who speak a very unusual language, challenging conventional norms. Piraha has, for example, no numbers and no colors to speak of but does have some concepts not found elsewhere.
That pattern would be more consistent with simply developing a language as needed than with a language being hardwired in the human brain.
The controversy is not likely to be settled any time soon. Meanwhile, Everett made another bold statement:
This means that language is no more a part of ‘human nature’ than any other invention. Rather, to the degree that there is anything like human nature, it is seen in the cognitive power and flexibility that supports our ability to innovate. Language is waiting to be invented by any creature with a sufficiently powerful brain, human, non-human or even alien.Daniel Everett, “Did Homo erectus speak” at Aeon (February 28, 2018)
In the absence of aliens or talking animals, that’s hard to test. But see this exchange of letters from Inference Review 2017, following a review of Kingdom, for a window into an engaging controversy.
You may also wish to read:
Why Noam Chomsky is a great scientist of our era. He singlehandedly rid linguistics of a stultifying (and technically mistaken) behaviorism (Michael Egnor)
Did the human mind originate in telling ourselves stories? A philosopher and writer tries to account for the jump from animal to human by wholly natural means. (Denyse O’Leary)
The real reason why only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly. (Michael Egnor)