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Keywords:

  • Language;
  • Homo sapiens;
  • Human origins;
  • Speech

Abstract

The evolution of anatomically modern humans is frequently linked to the development of complex, symbolically based language. Language, functioning as a system of cognition and communication, is suggested to be the key behavior in later human evolution that isolated modern humans from their ancestors. Alternatively, other researchers view complex language as a much earlier hominid capacity, unrelated to the origin of anatomically modern Homo sapiens. The validity of either perspective is contingent upon how language is defined and how it can be identified in the paleoanthropological record. In this analysis, language is defined as a system with external aspects relating to speech production and internal aspects involving cognition and symbolism. The hypothesis that complex language was instrumental in modern human origins is then tested using data from the paleontological and archaeological records on brain volume and structure, vocal tract form, faunal assemblage composition, intra-site diversification, burial treatment, ornamentation and art. No data are found to support linking the origin of modern humans with the origin of complex language. Specifically, there are no data suggesting any major qualitative changes in language abilities corresponding with the 200,000-100,000 BP dates for modern Homo sapiens origins proposed by single origin models or the 40,000-30,000 BP period proposed as the time for the appearance of modern Homo sapiens in Western Europe. Instead, there appears to be archaeological and paleontological evidence for complex language capabilities beginning much earlier, with the evolution of the genus Homo. © 1993 Wiley-Liss, Inc.