The presence of symbols in a culture is no evidence of the presence of language: so say six authors* (mostly generative linguists) of a paper just published in the International Journal of Evolutionary Biology. ("The Archaeological Record Speaks: Bridging Anthropology and Linguistics" is available here.) Their point is that the discovery of ancient symbols (from, say, a hundred thousand years ago) does not prove that the people of that period had a "faculty of language." Where this matters is in the case of Neanderthals. They had symbols, but, say the authors, that doesn't mean they had language. A better indicator of the language faculty, the authors suggest, might be the presence of knots.
One thing I always enjoy about papers from the generative tradition is their willingness to defy commonsense, and since commonsense tells you the world is flat, their defiance has to be taken seriously. They also have to be taken carefully, because they argue on an abstract level that requires close attention to their definitions. Notice, for example, that they are not interested in the origins of speech (this blog's subject), or the origins of language (the term preferred by many visitors to the blog), but the origins of the faculty of language "in roughly the same sense that organs evolve within organisms." [p 1] The authors promise that "a shift in focus" from language to the faculty of language can help us make "significant headway" in the search for human origins.
"Roughly" like organ evolution. I wonder how much is obscured behind that roughly. Is there some kind of organ that processes language the way, say, the liver processes toxins in the blood? If there is, then we can speak of the evolution of the language faculty just as we can consider the evolution of the liver, but they mean something more like a system, like the body's food processing system which consists of a number of different organs, including the liver, with different evolutionary histories.
At one point they say bluntly that the "Faculty of Language is a natural system of computation that resides in the mind/brain of all members of the human species" . The authors underscore this point: "the Faculty of Language is not a behavior, symbolic or otherwise, but a natural system of computation" . And what does it compute? Language, of course, defined in the classic Chomskyan sense of all and only the sentences of a particular language.
The language faculty, as these authors speak of it, is an automaton that generates sentences. Some machines can generate more complex sentences than others. The authors explain, "The complexity of … an automaton… is essentially defined in terms of the amount and sophistication of its memory resources" . Their line of argument is a search for evidence of an intelligence sophisticated enough to generate the sentences of a modern, natural language.
A problem for the authors, as they see it, is that "it is very rare to find bona-fide complex computational behaviors in the natural world" . I disagree. There are a lot of animal behaviors that, if done by a robot, would require some authentically complex code. Perception-based behavior in particular seems unavoidably complex. A cheetah watching impala selects one and charges at it. I'd like to see the program that can compute the best target in a herd of grazers and pursue it successfully. I'm sure such a device would require a memory system that enables the observer to compare two impala at the same time, follow some rules for evaluating them, and then make use of machine memory for storing the most promising target while looking at another. Put this way, the systems sounds as complex as programming a chess machine, and we haven't even gotten to the part where the predator runs down the fleeing prey. The authors, however, make no mention of perception. They focus on formal descriptions of tasks.
So what might we gain by shifting our focus from the origin of language to the faculty of language's presence? There might be a measure of complexity that increases as the Homo genus gets older, but the authors seem primarily concerned with the case of Neanderthals. Did they have a language faculty?
This blog has pointed to the presence of the human FOXP2 form in the Neanderthal genome as indication that they spoke, but the authors say, "we cannot simply infer the presence of the Faculty of Language from just the existence of the human variant of a group of interesting genes [FOXP2 and downstream genes], given all other relevant uncertainties" . Of course, I'm referring to a general ability to speak, not the ability to generate the complex sentences of the formal type required from a language faculty. It's not enough to say pass the salt. You have to be able to say, Jack says Pete passed the salt.
This blog has also pointed to the presence of a human hyoid bone in the ancestors of both humans and Neanderthals. They authors do not consider this fact, but they do report some comparative work between human and Neanderthal vocal tracts and warn, "However, in point of fact anatomical evidence cannot tell us much about the Faculty of Language,"  which is true enough, but anatomical evidence might give us some clues about changing abilities to make sounds.
A third element of evidence indicating some level of speech among Neanderthals is their use of body ornamentation and beaded jewelry. Such evidence is routinely accepted as proof that ancient Homo sapiens had language; however, the authors argue very cogently against the proposition that "the use of linguistic symbols is a special case of symbolic behavior" . Their line of reasoning is simple—it takes a Faculty of Language to produce sentences, but it takes no such faculty to produce the symbols painted on rocks, smeared on one's own body, or implicated in beaded jewelry. I happen to agree completely with this argument. Linguistic symbols and other symbols belong to separate categories. But can a culture that includes non-linguistic symbols endure without speech to interpret and explain any of them? Maybe, but I would like to see some evidence of it.
And the authors do concede that once the expansion of Homo sapiens took the species out of Africa, "Resources opened for those populations … More importantly, concepts and ideas, technologies and beliefs traveled too. Given the richness of what was shared, developed, and maintained, it seems unlikely that most of this sharing could have happened without lexical encoding, therefore presupposing the Faculty of Language" .
Lexical encoding?! They mean words. So they are ruling out the general claim that Neanderthals had words altogether! Granted that each piece of evidence favoring some level of Neanderthal speech is circumstantial, but taken as a group the genes, hyoid, and symbols amount to ample circumstances.
But surely they cannot be saying that the presence of words implies complex sentences. What about the apes that can be trained to use words in sign languages? They cannot form complex sentences. The authors do say that "nonhuman apes appear to be able to acquire symbolic systems,"and the footnote indicates they are talking about sign language, but they note that apes have never "been able to acquire/develop a full-fledged 'language,' or even a rudimentary version thereof involving some serious combinatorial syntax" . So they are making a categorical distinction between ape sign systems and human sign languagel
I'm always shocked by a true absence of evolutionary thinking. Between apes and us is a long lineage of species and genuses. There is a huge amount of paleontological evidence about this long period, and fruitful thought about it must at least consider the possibility that what we see today is a more complex version of something that came earlier. I would point out that this simple to complex process is visible even today in the development of language in children, but generative linguists typically follow Chomsky's lead and reduce the whole language-acquisition process to an instant in which language appears in full bloom.
Too bad because I think there is something to be learned by following a formal development of Homo intellect. The authors favor a limit of about a hundred thousand years of limit, but investigators can go far beyond that time and find archaeological evidence of complex behavior. Oldowan technology is about 2.5 million years old. By our standards, those old stone flakes are laughably crude, but by the standards of the rest of the world they required a great intelligence, something complex in exactly the way the authors speak of complexity. The difference between Oldowan tools and the kind of stones used by chimpanzees today is that chimpanzee tools satisfy an immediate need. Thus, to get at the contents of a nut an ape needs only to smash the nut with a stone.
tool --> reward
Oldowan tools take another step. To cut open a carcass early Homo needed to take a tool and make a flake, then take the flake and slice open a dead animal's skin.
tool1 --> tool2
tool2 --> reward
It is not as complex as modern language, but it is more complex than chimpanzee tool making.
A million years after the introduction of Oldowan technology we suddenly see Acheulean, or bifaced, tools, often called stone axes because, like an axe head, they have been worked on both sides. To make one of these Homo erectus had to take a tool and shape one side of an axe, then flip over the axe and make the other side, and then take the new tool and put it to use.
tool1 --> tool2a
tool2a --> tool2b
tool2b --> reward
It looks to me like Homo erectus was intelligent enough to speak a complex sentence. You can wonder if these intelligences are interchangeable. Can we say that erectus was smart enough to use sentences just because of its technology? We can at least say maybe.