Primeval Navigation Suggests Language Began 1.5 Million Years Earlier Than Thought
Were our primeval ancestors skilled mariners who sailed thousand of miles to distant islands using language, or did they grunt at each other while holding onto tree trunks being blown randomly on the waves of tsunamis? That is the big question!
Having emerged in Africa more than 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus fossils discovered as far afield as China, Indonesia and Southern Europe tell us it was the first archaic human to leave the continent. Some scientists even believe that the little hominid Homo floresiensis, discovered on the island of Flores in 2003, could be descended from H. erectus, but others fiercely disagree.
Reconstruction of female Homo floresiensis. (CC BY 4.0)
Revitalizing winds have been blown into the glowing embers of this centuries long debate after Daniel Everett, professor of global studies at Bentley University and author of How Language Began, addressed a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, saying of Erectus. "He travelled all over the world, travelled to the island of Flores, across one of the greatest ocean currents in the world,” as was reported in Archeology New Network .
Further antagonizing the old brigade Everett continued, “They sailed to the island of Crete and various other islands. It was intentional: they needed craft and they needed to take groups of twenty or so at least to get to those places.” Accepting that 200,000 year old primates developed sea going vessels and had developed what must have been advanced sailing skills, one must also assume that they also had language. And this is where things get controversial.
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At over 8000 years old (dated between 6590 BC and 6040 BC), the Pesse canoe is believed to be the world's oldest known boat. Old but way more modern than the Homo erectus era. (CC BY 3.0)
“Erectus needed language when they were sailing to the island of Flores. They couldn’t have simply caught a ride on a floating log because then they would have been washed out to sea when they hit the current” said Everett. “They needed to be able to paddle. And if they paddled they needed to be able to say ‘paddle there’ or ‘don’t paddle.’ You need communication with symbols not just grunts” he added.
Anthropologists debate when language first emerged among hominids and many claim that it’s a feature secular to Homo sapiens suggesting it began no earlier than 200,000 years ago. But Everett is now challenging this orthodox view by pushing the origins of language deep into pre-history.
We have to be mindful that what we perceive as language might not always have been this way. Everett said H. erectus would have been unable to make the same range of sounds as we do because “they lacked the version of a gene necessary for speech and language to develop – known as FOXP2” which is only found in Neanderthals and modern humans. But argues that language is defined by only “two sounds" and “Everybody talks about Homo erectus as a stupid ape-like creature, which of course describes us just as well…They had what it took to invent language – and language is not as hard as many linguists have led us to believe. If you have symbols in a linear order then you have a grammar,” said Everett.
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Comparison of skull features of Homo erectus, H. floresiensis and other early human species. (CC BY 4.0)
Skeptics, like Chris Stringer head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, have spoken up against Everett saying “there is little evidence that H. erectus was a sophisticated seafarer, let alone had developed the language required to sail.” However, Stringers reasoning as to how people got to Flores well outweighs Everett’s claims of language in that he thinks “Tsunamis could have moved early humans on rafts of vegetation,” as was reported in The Independant. Stringer added to his skepticism by pointing out that even though H. erectus made and used tools, this is not convincing evidence that they also used language “Chimps and crows make and use tools without a human kind of language,” he said.
What appears to be happening here is a battle of semantics over the word “language.” To me, every time an ape “a,a,a’s” it’s using what can be defined as a form of language, for example, “leave my bananas alone“ and “touch my mate and I will destroy you.” The reactions of other apes confirms the communication was understood. You would think that early humans also developed a range of threats and warnings, but whether their early chattering was enough to build ocean faring vessels that sailed thousands of miles across hellish oceans, only time will tell.
Top image: Homo erectus statue, taken at David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins as the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
By Ashley Cowie