Posts Tagged ‘Pleistocene African’

7. How we became humans 4: Language – linguisticness

In one australopithecus group, some 4 million years ago, the custom of imitating things with the hands appeared. This started (in my scenario, perhaps you have another) as a playful performance between some girls.

At first my idea was that the more complicated new foraging environment enforced a sophistication of normal ape communication. However, recent discoveries of savanna chimpanzee women who dig up roots with digging sticks – without language communication! – convinced me that our linguality is not the result of a need to survive. The only other scenario I could imagine was that it started as a casual girl play.

The alpha woman had decided this morning that the foraging route was ‘that way!’. The girl on the right knew that this would lead to the place with the delicious berries! She wanted desperately to communicate her excitement with her friends. And she imitated [berry] with her hand. The sitting girl tries to imagine what is in the mind of her friend. The girl left is only agitated because they are in danger: the others are already on the way and the predators are always on the look-out. But then the sitting girl will get it. And she makes the imitating gesture too! And then there is laughter! All day long they make the same gesture, and laugh. The next day the foraging route leads to another place, and the other girl tries to think over another gesture for another thing. And again there is laughter all day long.

That’s my speculation. I made this picture of the pivotal moment. Perhaps you can imagine another and better scenario. But it has to be started with something: we are language-using creatures now.

This casual girl play (or something like that) was a performance that never happened in the whole history of life on earth: an animal that communicates a thing that is not there on the spot. An animal that communicates not a feeling or emotion, but a special thing that is in her mind. The imitating gesture is a name. A gestured word. It is a handle, a grip, with which you can grasp a thing in your mind and put it in someone else’s mind. No other kind of animal has this capability.

A casual girl play; when that particular day the alpha women or man accidentally would have been bad-tempered and annoyed, this play could have been stopped and then we would have been still normal australopitheci today.

But is was a nice, a creative, a generative play and it didn’t stop. It became a special group culture; when the girls moved to another group to find a partner, they took the habit along and so the culture spread over the whole tribe. Our earliest ancestors.

What then makes having names for the things so important for human evolution?

1. The feeling of distance between the ‘namer’ and the named thing. Normal animals are part of their environment; for our ancestors there became ‘light’ between them and their environment. Not yet on individual scale, more as the feeling of ‘us’ (our group) and their environment. The distance between subject and object. Our ancestors became the first and only animals who could objectify the world of things. Philosophers like Kant understand what I mean. Thanks, Kant.

2. Our ancestors became the first and only animals who could talk with each other about things that were not there, not on the spot or on that moment: a plant, a place, an animals, water, earthquake, volcano, yesterday, tomorrow, other season, you name it.

3. Knowledge obtained by the older generation could be transmitted more easily and in more detail to the younger generation; knowledge could accumulate in our ancestors.

4. Naming a thing gives a feeling of power over the thing. It is this aspect that helped our ancestors to lose of their animal fear for the fire and to use it; no other animal has ever achieved this.

5. Two know more than one, and with a group we can solve big problems: our ancestors could put together all individual intelligence, could brainstorm; they could develop plans, they could consult together. From the slow and scared new savanna-dwellers of the Miocene with names for the things, they soon became the hooligans of the Pleistocene African savanna.

Bigger brains perhaps? Oh no. It was long after the birth of the facility of names for things, long after the first use of fire, long after the spread over the African continent and the first Out of Africa, that our ancestors got bigger brains. The more social an animal species is, the bigger the brains. Linguisticness is the most social of all social behaviors. So bigger brains are the result of it, not the cause.

Linguisticness! Ever more names for more and more things… In the end the whole environment of our ancestors, their whole ‘world’, existed of named things. Our ancestors got to live in a named world, a words world. That’s a sort of ‘virtual world’, and we still live in it. For us a thing only exists when we have a name for it. Isn’t it, Kant? (He nods.) We are linguistic creatures.

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Used abbreviations

GHs: gatherers/hunters (the phase from 2 million years ago to 10.000 years ago)

AGRs: agriculturers (the phase from 10.000 years ago till now)

NT(s)Neanderthal people

MSA(s): Middle Stone Age people (African NTs)

AMH(s): Anatomical Modern Humans (H sapiens people), like we are

(m)ya: (million) years ago

ANBOs: Ancestor Bonobos (ape-men), our earliest human ancestors

Paleos: all scientists that are important for our story.