The man who stopped being an ape: the birth of Human Language

The man who stopped being an ape: the birth of Human Language

Every time we stop to think about origins of our species, the same questions always arise. ¿What is the precise moment when our hominid ancestors stopped being hominid and became men? ¿The appearance of language is the starting point to consider the origin of humanity? And if so,How and when did it occur?

To resolve such issues, many anthropologists refer to the comparison of three of the species closest and most representative, in evolutionary terms, to us: the "Homo Apharensis", the "Homo Erectus”And finally, the“Homo Sapiens”.

However, before analyzing these three species, it is necessary to clarify a series of ideas or hypotheses related to the appearance of language. ¿Language is born by the mere evolution and adaptation of our speech apparatus? ¿Perhaps it arises as a result of the development of the intellect? ¿Or perhaps we owe its origin to the fusion of both characteristics?

It seems logical to think that, indeed, for language to be produced there must first be a phonic organ capable of emitting and articulating sounds. Therefore, as long as evolution allowed a certain, although crude, biological tool to sustain language among our distant ancestors, it should have been born. ¿It really happened like this?

If we refer to a contemporary species such as the chimpanzee, with which we share a high percentage of genes, we can answer that question. Although the chimpanzee's speech apparatus is not the same as ours, it can articulate sounds. While this is so, chimpanzees have not developed a language similar to ours. Furthermore, although it did not originate spontaneously, it is not feasible to teach it either.

Despite having a certain phonic capacity to articulate sounds, the chimpanzee has never developed a language. Some of you will think that chimpanzees can communicate, true, but we should not confuse that term with language. Every animal communicates in one way or another with its peers, but only humans have a language.

By language I mean the act of using language as a structured system of communication that allows to elaborate and understand an infinite number of messages. Chimpanzees do not have this, so those old theories that linked the appearance of a speech apparatus capable of articulating sounds like the spark that started the creation of a language are more than outdated.

But nevertheless, they could be taught a signed language similar to that of deaf-mutes, which constitute a de facto language with the same possibilities of expression as spoken natural languages, except, logically, those derived from sound. However, at this point, all scientific attempts to make it possible have achieved very poor results, a few gestures accompanied by a sound, nothing that we can classify as a true language.

Language is not something innate in the chimpanzee, but even trying to teach it artificially, it is not possible either. The reason seems to be that the intelligence of these animals is not sufficient for the development of a language like human.

In the same way, the Apharensis, very similar to our current chimpanzee, he could not develop that linguistic capacity either and, although he was bipedal and possessed certain traits far from humanity, his mental, social and communicational behavior classify him more as an animal than as a man.

The next evolutionary step that I will refer to is that of Homo Erectus, which did possess in addition to an adequate speech apparatus, a brain that, although of lower capacity, was similar to ours. It is a species that has intelligence and that has a certain capacity to interact and modify its environment. Homo Erectus makes use of the manufacture of tools to hunt and can operate on the killed pieces in order to obtain from them all its resources.

The ease of obtaining food causes them to obtain large amounts of protein, which carries nutrients for the neurons. With the passing of the centuries your mental capacity increases and improves your synapse. In addition, this species had some decision-making capacity and could solve problems (although of simple qualification).

In addition to the above, they discovered fire as a defense tool, as a heat source and its food application in the cooking of meat. All these data already point to a combination of speech apparatus and intelligence. Did they reach the language? It seems that, although they might have access to some kind of guttural protolanguage, the truth is that it cannot be considered a proper language. They had an adequate speech apparatus, a certain intelligence, as shown by the use of fire and tools, and yet nothing indicates that they generated the first human language.

The last species I will refer to is that of a very close ancestor, the first Homo Sapiens, which some scientists still classify as “Archaic Homo Sapiens”(But I won't go into it now). A being with an appearance very similar to ours, with an ideal speech apparatus for the articulation of words and an intellect superior to his predecessors.

However, for many anthropologists, in its beginnings Archaic Homo SapiensAlthough very close, he is not totally human either and he has not developed the language we know today. ¿We affirm then that the conjunction of speech apparatus and intellect is not enough for modern human language to appear.? ¿A third trigger is needed?

In the evolution of Homo Sapiens there is a transition period caused by a radical and sudden change in the climatic conditions of our world that caused the drop in temperatures and with it the reduction of food sources. It is in this phase that the number of parallel hominid species is reduced and when it is assumed that the population of Homo Sapiens it was alarmingly reduced to bordering on extinction figures. It is precisely at this moment that something changes in the mind of that predecessor, something that would lead him to create and develop a human language.

It is in this period when members of the Homo Sapiens groups They seem to become aware of themselves and when they strengthen their relationships with each other. They need to join forces to survive and creativity originates for the first time, perhaps due to this situation of urgency.

At the same time awareness of the need to act as a group to obtain food. The urgent need for coordination is born, a few guttural grunts are no longer enough, a more specialized communication is needed and that is the trigger for the appearance of human language. In addition, as we have already mentioned, creativity, abstraction and something very important in the evolution of communication arises: "having something to tell”, The need to transmit learning.

It seems a trifle, but the need arises to transmit knowledge through something more than simple imitation and this, together with that need for organization and coordination, triggers the communication process that will lead us to the use of language.

You already had the phonic capacity, you had the intelligence, you only needed one trigger, the need for coordination and organization to survive, having something to transmit orally. Definitely, the need to elaborate and understand an infinite number of messages.


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