This is how Homo Erectus spoke: when did we start talking?

This is how Homo Erectus spoke: when did we start talking?

In human evolution, the birth of language is considered a crucial stage. Unlike simple communication, which could occur by gestures or vocalizations in the presence of objects to which they were referred, language allowed "speech" to be used when these objects were absent, to allude to past actions, or to the future. Hominins could then share thought and imagination.


However, there is no agreement among scholars on the timing of this crucial change. Some insist on seeing language as a recent skill, no older than 150 thousand years and refer to Homo sapiens. Others see it as the result of a slower process that began long ago. Now, an essay by the English archaeologist Steven Mithen, The Language Puzzle, places the beginning of language 1.6 million years ago, i.e. from Homo ergaster (or Homo Erectus).


At that time many things happened that influenced the change of communication. Stone tools appeared that not only expressed the concept of symmetry, but required more complex communication to convey how they were constructed. The typical tool was the amygdala, a kind of multifunctional ax with two equal sides and in the shape of a large almond.

Moreover, from being simple scavengers, that is, scavengers who took the meat of already dead large animals, hominins had become skilled predators who practiced organized hunting. Therefore, language was essential for their programming and coordination.


If 2 million years ago their brain was approximately as large as that of chimpanzees, from 2 to 1.5 million years ago there was an increasing encephalization with the development of the frontal cortex, so that from 500 cubic cm that of Australopithecus was reached 900 cubic cm in Homo. A brain as big as 75% of our brains today.

From words to deeds

The other important coincidence is that around 1.6 million years ago, hominins of the genus Homo were found in Georgia, China and Indonesia, and were therefore the protagonists of the migration from Africa: difficult to implement without the use of a common language , for groups that found themselves in new environments. The hypothesis of Mithen's book converges with that of the American linguist Daniel Everett. To get to Indonesia, Homo Erectus would certainly need boats. To build them and to navigate, language was necessary. But even according to Everett, language was a gradual achievement rather than a sudden enlightenment.

Important to understand

The language of Homo Erectus was still characterized by the gestures that accompanied the words: these, to a limited extent, compared to modern languages, could change the meaning, depending on the tone of the voice. Mithen himself believes that some aspects of that early language development 1.6 million years ago still survive in modern languages ​​today.

Onomatopoeic words

Words, which through their sounds or length, describe the objects they represent, were almost certainly among the first spoken words. Any examples? "Boom" and "Crack" to name lightning and something that breaks, to something that snorts, to say that you are upset, the lip reproduction of the sound of sea waves or wind to indicate these elements. In the case where structured words are used, i.e. not only onomatopoeic, the union of two terms is used: wild duck, for example, can be called "water bird". / Focus – Bota.al