Is language very, very old or just really old? By “just really old” I mean 80 to 100 thousand years. Our own line of Homo sapiens was until recently dated at about 200 thousand years and now seems to be 300 thousand years old. The thought that for 2/3s of its history, even Homo sapiens was without language is startling, since so much of our species seems built for language. Our vocal system includes features like a wind pipe that is exposed to the mouth, increasing the risk of food going down the air pipe to the lungs by mistake. We got rid of the air sacs in our chests (still present in other apes) that reduces our ability to yell impressively, while improving our ability to speak clearly. A whole host of muscles and timing permit us to articulate a wider range of sounds more precisely and fluently. So, if language is only 100 thousand years old, these features must have evolved for reasons other than language. No one has much of an idea what those reasons might be.
Or language might be very, very old, that is to say 1.8 to 1.5 million years old. That would make it anywhere from 15 to 22.5 times older than common estimates. This figure would provide the time necessary to evolve all the physical traits we enjoy that support language, but it raises the question of what took us so long to conquer the world. If the Homo erectus of 1 million years ago already had half a million years of speech behind it, why was the culture still so crude and the tool box so simple?
The objection to the very, very old hypothesis does not seem insurmountable. The original speech may well have been much simpler than modern languages and it could have taken us a long time to evolve the ability to speak in complete sentences, use metaphors, remember the references in long sentences, etc.
One attractive test for the two views of language’s age is the Neanderthal. Did those guys speak, or not? The very, very old hypothesis predicts they did. The just really old hypothesis predicts they did not. So which is it? The question was once thought unanswerable, due to the lack of witnesses; however, evidence has been growing to indicate the Neanderthals did speak. The latest review of the data comes in the journal of Behavioral Sciences in a paper by Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson titled “Neanderthal Language Revisited: not only us.”
Of particular interest is the genetic evidence. In recent years we have studied the genetic makeup of as many as 20 Neanderthals, telling us things we thought beyond knowing. For one thing they have put an end to wondering whether there are any remaining descendants of Neanderthals. There are. Interbreeding occurred at least a few times. The authors don’t have much to say about genes and language beyond noting that “unfortunately, linking molecular genetics to language and speech is an extremely complex endeavor.” Nothing definitive here.
More promising is the evidence of how widespread the Neanderthals were, stretching from Siberia to Gibraltar. They adapted to their habitats, being mostly carnivorous in the northern climates and were skilled leather workers. They had stone and bone awls probably used to stich leather pieces together to create warm clothing, Further south the diets were more mixed. Fossils also indicate some dental work. They appear to have had the technology to apply handles to cutting edges a quarter of a million years ago and by 50,000 years ago could produce fire on demand. It used to be said that Neanderthals did not use symbolic decorations, but we now know they used shell and teeth necklaces and buried infants with things like antler horns that could have had no literal reason for being included with the corpse, and as much as 170 thousand years ago they made “circular constructions from broken stalagmites more than 300 meters deep in the Bruniquel cave [located in southern France], for which it is hard to imagine any reason other than ceremonial.”
The arguments in favor of Neanderthal speech are based on a preponderance of the evidence rather than established beyond a reasonable doubt. A preponderance of the evidence means that it is more likely to be true than false. The issue is not a coin toss, but one in which the odds of Neanderthal speech appear to be greater than 50%.
The main argument: “Language affords culture-carrying capacity,” that is to say you cannot have any but the simplest cultures if you don’t have language. The difference between simple cultures and advanced ones is that (1) advanced cultures include behaviors that serve no biological function. Chimpanzee cultures have tools that help them get food (a biological need) while all human cultures include ceremonies that serve no biological need (e.g., funerals, coming of age rituals, welcome-newborns ceremonies like baptisms and brises). The use of necklaces, burial rites and deep-cave ceremonies indicate that Neanderthals had advanced cultures that could only be sustained verbally; (2) advanced cultures allow for full adaptation to a new ecological niche. Chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are clever, but confined to a fairly narrow niche. They have not spread across the globe. Meanwhile, Neanderthal ability to adapt to radically different environments also argues for more advanced adaptive powers, most likely arising from verbal skills that allow a population to share insights and adapt as a group to new conditions; and (3) advanced cultures have advanced tools that cannot be learned just by watching. Neanderthals were attaching cutting blades to handles perhaps 250 thousand years ago. I don’t know how to do that today. Probably, one master worker had to show and tell apprentices how to do the work.
These findings do not settle the matter but they do indicate that Neanderthals are more likely to have had some language (not necessarily identical to our own) than not. Theories about language then are more likely to be correct if they allow for a long evolutionary history than a short or, in Chomsky’s case, an instantaneous origin.