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Study shows prehistoric man used hand gestures to communicate. Source: Zemler / Adobe Stock

Prehistoric Humans Didn’t Grunt Their Ideas - They Used Hand Gestures

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A new study has shown that the origins of human communication began with hand gestures, and not sounds. The research team discovered this after tasking volunteers to describe words using grunts and then hand gestures. The latter was found to be, by far, the most effective method of conveying ideas and concepts.

Testing Grunts and Hand Gestures

The “archetypal” prehistoric human grunted when communicating. But this incorrect stereotype, that Hollywood has hammered home for decades, has now been dissolved in the face of a new scientific study. A team of scientists from the University of Western Australia has determined that our prehistoric ancestors likely “did not use sounds to communicate, and instead opted for hand gestures.”

The new study was recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in which the researchers asked volunteers to attempt describing words using only grunts, followed by hand gestures. The latter were found to be “far more effective” when one human attempted to communicate ideas to another. Furthermore, actions more than sounds, were understood by people from different social backgrounds.

The study revealed that hand gestures were far more effective in communicating meaning. (Fay et. al. / Proceedings of the Royal Society B)

The study revealed that hand gestures were far more effective in communicating meaning. (Fay et. al. / Proceedings of the Royal Society B )

Lips or Hands, That Was the Question

The Australian researchers aimed to determine whether grunts or hand gestures were the most effective means of communication across cultures. The scientists wrote that people of all cultures gesture while they speak. Even blind people gesture, and hearing restricted adults and children can also “successfully use gesture as their sole means of communication,” the researchers said.

The new study was inspired by a 2015 paper by scientists from the University of Liverpool and St Andrews argued that humans initiated more complex communications around “2.5 to 1.8 million years ago.” It was implied that people were “talking about DIY” after the researchers concluded “ tool-making drove the evolution of language among our human ancestors in the African savannah.”

Part of the study involved playing a game similar to charades. (EmotionPhoto / Adobe Stock)

Part of the study involved playing a game similar to charades. ( EmotionPhoto / Adobe Stock)

Hunting Was the Most Efficient Method of Communication

The new paper says sophisticated manual languages, with the same expressive range as spoken language, emerge rapidly in populations of deaf children. It is the “ubiquity of gesture, and its capacity to rapidly evolve into language,” that urged the scientists to test if language originated in the ancient world with physical gestures, rather than conceptual vocal instructions.

The first experiment testing the team’s “gesture before vocals” hypothesis involved 30 people from Australia and 30 people from Vanuatu. Firstly, both groups were tasked with playing a game similar to charades that requires an individual projecting ideas to other people to guess what the significance of the instruction was. Then the rules changed, with hand gestures being replaced with grunts and grumbles. It was discovered that gestures were a much more effective communicating method.

Effective Communicators Don’t Grunt - They Gesture

Part two of this experiment repeated the first but with visually-impaired people making and interpreting the hand gestures or grunts. Again, even though visually-impaired people do not have shared visual clues, hand gestures beat grunts, hands down. “These findings support a gesture-first theory of language origin,” the researchers concluded.

Gestures such as “slicing the air or waving” seem to make visual instructions more memorable. The scientists said this means gesture is “ideally suited to bootstrapping human communication among modern humans and therefore supports the hypothesis that gesture is the primary modality for language creation.” And according to the Daily Mail these new observations might explain why politicians, and other salespeople, have the “annoying” habit of chopping their hands in the air while orating.

Prehistoric man communicating with each other and producing cave drawings. (Public domain)

Prehistoric man communicating with each other and producing cave drawings. (Public domain)

Lost in the Middle of Grunts and Hand Gestures

Just to be clear, this new study has quite serious implications for the current state of, and the future of, human communications. Now we know, for sure, that human communication is most effective when delivered as hand gestures, what then of emails, texts and social media platforms?

A primary reason why online platforms see so much conflict between users is because so much of one’s intentions are are lost with textual communication. The tech giants know this clearly, and to help users they now offer a tight set of emojis so that they can “gesture” to one and another. Where will all this end, I ask you, if all of our gestures are limited to the same little stupid circular yellow faces, when we know that for more than 2 million years we were most effective communicating with hand gestures? The devolution of communication, one fears.

Top image: Study shows prehistoric man used hand gestures to communicate. Source: Zemler / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

Comments

Pete Wagner's picture

How much would the clan need to talk about within the cave?  Emotions would be communicated non-verbally, at its most honest and direct.  And everybody would know what everybody else knows and feels about something.  And then hand signals for the hunt.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Surely speech is the best means of communicating?  Who says that early man could not speak and how do they know they couldn’t?  

Elrotto, I agree. 

Humans have been able to make a much wider range of sounds than grunts and grumbles for a long time.  It seems communication works best with a combination of sounds and gestures.  Throat singing and whistle languages were used to communicate over distances too great for gestures. I don’t doubt that gestures formed an important part of early language development, but is this study implying that there was a gestural language with grammar before there was a spoken language with grammar?  It seems like a pretty big leap.

And while I agree with the point that written language can’t convey nearly as much as direct communication, it certainly is not on the same level as the random grunts this study talks about.

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