The Evolution of Vocabulary in Ancient Humans

By Michael Alan Prestwood

Language < Sapiens < Evolution < Science
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Abstract: This visual and descriptive retelling of the tale of language is the story of animal communication. Our journey from grunts to Shakespeare is a tale of increased cognitive abilities, the evolution of the hyoid bone, and the addition of one “vocabulary word” at a time. Early hominins learned about life through small impressions, and thanks to their remarkable brains, they expressed themselves increasingly well within a single lifetime. Gradually, ancient humans from Homo habilis to Neanderthals evolved complex communication systems that paved the way for modern language. How language evolved explains much about our place in the animal kingdom!

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From gestures to language: Tracing the Evolution of Communication

Language represents the things we see, our ideas about them, and the things we imagine. Each vocabulary word stands for an abstract idea, a signal from one person to another. When we say “tree” or “run,” those words are abstractions for things. “Tree” is a label for something we can all see. “Run” is a label for the action of someone running, but it’s also a verb telling us to start running. We also have rational ideas which are ideas only in our mind about life. Words like love, honor, and fairness. Finally, we have wholly made-up ideas where we blend together existing ideas to forge an imaginary one—speculative ideas about the world. So, how did language evolve? How did we emerge from animalistic grunts to the eloquence of Shakespeare?

Modern human like hyoid bone, circa 700,000 BCE.

What do we know for sure? Today, we know about the role of the FOXP2 gene in speech and language development, combined with the evolutionary advancements in the human brain, it underscores the biological foundations of our linguistic capabilities. We know that chimpanzees have this gene but there are two amino acid differences. We also know that Neanderthals and Denisovans possessed the same FOXP2 gene as modern humans, including the two key amino acid changes. This suggests that these hominins spoke to each other. Since Homo heidelbergensis or a species like it is the common ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern humans, using the Occam Approach, it is likely that they also possessed the same version of the FOXP2 gene. This implies they spoke too, pushing spoken language back at least 700,000 years. The evolution of the two critical amino acid changes are estimated to have occurred sometime between the divergence of the human lineage from that of chimpanzees (about 7 million years ago) and the emergence of Homo heidelbergensis. We also know that Homo heidelbergensis had a modern shape to its hyoid bone. Earlier hominins might have as well, but because of their fragile nature, we have yet to find an intact hyoid bone from earlier hominins.

We also know communication takes many forms, and it is within this context of variety that we use the word vocabulary in this article. It is based on cognitive ability and is learned through impressions as one lives. While our written and oral storytelling traditions are the pinnacle of communication, we also know that simple gestures like pointing also communicate. With the right non-language grunt, scream, or intonation, we know we can point at something and communicate fear of an oncoming threat, the sorrow of someone leaving, or the joy of their return. In this article, those abstractly represent vocabulary.

We also know that communication is generally context-sensitive, and we know animals do it effectively1. For example, based on research, we know wolves2 have a vocabulary ranging from a dozen to a few dozen distinct signals. These signals serve various purposes and are vital for coordinating group behavior and maintaining social cohesion. Wolves use a combination of vocalizations, body language, and facial expressions to convey messages. Howls, growls, barks, and whines each have different meanings, from signaling location to expressing dominance or submission. Tail positions, ear movements, and postures further enrich their communication, allowing wolves to navigate their social structure and environment effectively3. Wolves and humans share a common ancestor about 100 million years ago4. And, all mammals branching off that common ancestor communicate using a vocabulary from about a dozen to at least a few dozen words and gestures in various contexts. This includes dogs, cats, and sea lions and the even smarter species like raccoons, dolphins, and monkeys with vocabularies ranging into the thousands.

We know much, and without assuming too much, we can now tell the story of how language evolved. This is that story as we know it.

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By about 125 million years ago, mammals likely increased their vocabulary above a dozen and perhaps for some species at times into the hundreds. This vocabulary, or signaling, was a series of movements and screeches which eventually evolved into gestures and grunts. Today, mammals from this lineage communicate with a range of signals, not unlike our abstract vocabulary. We see this in their descendants ranging from the opossum, with communication signals of only about a dozen, to wolves, ranging into the hundreds.

Today, wolves use this rich tapestry of communication in the wild: howls to signal location, growls to assert dominance, and a myriad of body postures to convey submission, aggression, or affection. This early foundation of dozens of signals provided the building blocks for the more complex communication systems that would evolve in other branches of the mammalian family tree.

Eomaia scansoria in their natural environment from about 125 million years ago. These early mammals likely lived in a lush, prehistoric forest setting and had a vocabulary, or signaling, range into the dozens visual movements and noises.

It is reasonable to postulate that our ancestors were much like the great apes are today. With smaller brains, they grunted and gestured at each other with a vocabulary ranging into the thousands. Over a very long time, spanning millions of years, they added one new vocabulary word at a time. The ability to communicate better with fellow humans was crucial, so those born with better language traits survived longer and reproduced more successfully.

Since before the orangutan branched about 12 million years ago, all the great ape species had a vocabulary—signals, gestures, grunts, and screams—in various contexts, potentially ranging into the thousands. These early apes communicated with not only a wide variety but also different levels or gradations of these signals. For instance, one type of scream might indicate danger from above, while another might signal danger on the ground. Depending on the situation, the scream could represent danger at a distance, an immediate personal threat, approaching danger, or imminent danger. Similarly, the same sound could have variations to signal that an attack is in progress or that one just occurred.

Rudapithecus hungaricus in their natural environment from about 11 million years ago. These early great apes likely lived in a lush forest setting and had a vocabulary, or signaling, range into the thousands in various contexts.

Proto-Language Emerges: 3 to 5 MYA

Imagine standing on the African savannas, millions of years ago, where the sun casts long shadows over the grasslands and the air is filled with the distant sounds of wildlife. Here, our early ancestors, the australopithecines, are taking their first steps toward the sophisticated communication that will eventually define humanity. These hominins, smaller and less brainy than modern humans, are beginning to experiment with a rudimentary form of language.

In this primordial world, communication is a matter of survival. Our ancestors are developing a system of grunts and gestures that go beyond the basic cries of other animals. Picture a small band of australopithecines foraging for food. One spots a potential meal and emits a specific grunt, a sound that translates roughly to “food.” Another spots danger—a lurking predator—and raises an alarm with a different vocalization. These early forms of communication, though primitive, are vital for the group’s cohesion and survival.

The gestural communication of these early hominins is also remarkably sophisticated. Much like modern apes, who use many visual techniques to communicate, australopithecines likely relied heavily on body language. A raised arm might signal “come here,” while a pointed finger could indicate “over there.” These gestures are not random; they are deliberate and understood by the group, forming a primitive “vocabulary” of up to 200 sounds and signals. This nascent language allows them to coordinate hunting and gathering activities, care for their offspring, and interact socially in ways that are more complex than their primate relatives.

Studies on primate behavior today give us a window into this ancient communication system. Chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, use a range of visual and auditory signals for specific purposes—grooming, playing, warning of danger. These behaviors suggest that our australopithecine ancestors possessed similar, if not more advanced, abilities. The evolution of these early communication methods marks the beginning of a journey that will lead to the development of language as we know it.

The significance of these early grunts and gestures cannot be overstated. They represent the dawn of human communication, a fundamental shift that sets the stage for everything to come. Over millions of years, these simple sounds and signals will evolve into complex languages, enabling our ancestors to share stories, pass down knowledge, and build the foundations of culture and society. This is where the story of human language begins—in the simple yet profound acts of grunting and gesturing on the African plains.

Imagine a time, millions of years ago, when our early ancestors roamed the African savannas. They were not yet equipped with the intricate languages we use today, but they were far from silent. Through grunts, gestures, and primal vocalizations, they began to carve out a rudimentary form of communication. These early sounds and signs, though simplistic, marked the dawn of a complex journey towards sophisticated language.

Australopithecus afarensis in their natural environment from about 4 million years ago. These early hominins likely lived in a lush forest setting and had a vocabulary, or signaling, ranging into the thousands of words in various contexts.

Simple Language Emerges: 1 to 3 MYA

Fast forward to a world inhabited by early Homo species, such as Homo habilis and Homo erectus, between one and three million years ago. This period marks a significant leap in the evolution of communication. Our ancestors are no longer relying solely on simple grunts and gestures; they are developing a more complex system of language, laying the groundwork for the intricate verbal communication we use today.

Imagine a small group of Homo habilis working together to hunt or gather food. The coordination required for these activities demands more than basic signals. They need to share detailed information—where the best foraging spots are, how to make and use tools, and how to avoid predators. This necessity drives the development of hundreds of different visual and auditory techniques to form a simple language that is both expressive and functional.

This burgeoning language allows early humans to pass down vital survival information through generations. Picture an elder teaching a younger member of the group how to fashion a stone tool. The elder uses a combination of gestures and sounds to demonstrate the technique, ensuring that this crucial skill is not lost. These early lessons are the precursors to the rich oral traditions that will later define human culture. Simple stories, like warnings about dangerous areas or the location of abundant food sources, begin to take shape, creating a shared knowledge base that enhances group survival.

Collective learning, where a parent teaches a child, started long before primates, but something like our modern approach to showing our young how to live likely started about 3 million years ago, perhaps with a species like australopithecus in a place like Kenya, Africa.

The development of simple language is intertwined with significant advancements in tool use and brain size. Archaeological evidence shows that Homo habilis and Homo erectus crafted increasingly sophisticated tools, suggesting advanced cognitive abilities. These tools are not just for immediate survival—they are part of a broader cultural toolkit, passed down and refined through generations. The ability to teach and learn these skills through language underscores the importance of communication in human evolution.

Social learning becomes a cornerstone of early human societies. The ability to transmit knowledge and skills through both demonstration and vocalization creates a more cohesive and capable group. Cooperative hunting, for instance, requires precise communication to coordinate movements and strategies. The complexity of these activities indicates that early humans were capable of conveying detailed and nuanced information, a significant advancement from the simpler communication systems of their ancestors.

Step back 800,000 years to the lush landscapes of Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, where early humans pioneered the art of tool-making. This vivid scene captures a bustling workshop set among distinctive tuff cones and sedimentary pillars. Observe groups of early Homo species as they skillfully craft stone tools.

This period is a testament to the power of language in shaping human evolution. The emergence of simple language marks a pivotal moment, transforming our ancestors’ ability to interact with their environment and each other. It is a crucial step on the path to the fully developed languages that will later allow humans to build civilizations, create art, and explore the mysteries of the universe. The story of language evolution is one of increasing complexity and sophistication, driven by the ever-growing needs of human societies.

As the millennia rolled on, these primitive forms of communication evolved, mirroring the gradual advancements in our ancestors’ cognitive and social structures. By around three million years ago, early members of the Homo genus started to develop more elaborate ways to convey their needs and experiences. This period likely saw the emergence of proto-languages—systems of sounds and gestures that went beyond mere survival signals. With these tools, our ancestors could share not only the location of food and dangers but also the rudimentary stories that shaped their understanding of the world.

Homo habilis in their natural environment from about 2 million years ago. These early humans likely lived in a savanna setting with scattered trees, grasses, and rocky outcrops. They communicated using a range of visual and auditory techniques to convey messages. While speculative, some are pictured here with loincloths representing the range of thought on the clothing of our ancestors about 2 million years ago.

Proto-True-Language Emerges: 1 Million to 700,000 Years Ago

As we journey further along the timeline of human evolution, we find ourselves between one million and 700,000 years ago. This era is inhabited by Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis and early Neanderthals, species that mark another leap in the complexity of human communication. The proto-language of these ancestors is now more sophisticated, bridging the gap between the simpler grunts and gestures of earlier hominins and the intricate languages of modern humans.

The discoveries of 290 thousand year old ancient art is significant to this discussion. Art represents symbolic thought which represents a significant step in cognitive ability. Art found in central India, cupules (circular hollows on rock surfaces) are among the earliest known forms of rock art. They were likely created by a species like Homo erectus or Homo heidelbergensis and not Homo sapiens. Homo sapiens are not known to be in India until around 40,000 years ago. Homo erectus is known in India as early as 1.7 million years ago and Homo heidelbergensis around 300,000 years ago. If Homo heidelbergensis is confirmed, that moves the evolution of symbolic thought back to before 700,000 years ago. If Homo erectus is confirmed, that moves it back to well before 2 million years ago.

Cave are found in central India dated back to 290 thousand years ago has significant implications for the evolution of the human brain.

Imagine a world where our ancestors, equipped with larger brains and more intricate social structures, gather around a fire at dusk. Here, in the flickering light, they share stories—not merely about survival, but about their experiences, their environment, and their social norms. This proto-language, while still far from the complexities of contemporary speech, includes thousands of combinations of sounds and gestures. These combinations allow for a depth of expression previously unattainable, enabling more detailed storytelling and enhancing social bonds within the group.

The emergence of this proto-language is closely tied to the significant increase in brain size observed in Homo heidelbergensis and early Neanderthals. With larger brains came greater cognitive abilities, allowing these hominins to process and produce more complex forms of communication. Studies on the FOXP2 gene, often called the “language gene,” suggest that these ancestors possessed the genetic makeup necessary for advanced speech and language. This gene, crucial for language development in modern humans, indicates that our predecessors had already laid the groundwork for sophisticated communication.

Cultural transmission during this period takes on new dimensions. The ability to pass on knowledge through storytelling becomes a cornerstone of these early societies. Picture a skilled hunter sharing his strategies for tracking game, using a mix of vocal sounds and gestures to convey his methods. Or imagine a group leader warning others about the dangers lurking in certain areas, using detailed descriptions that go beyond simple alerts. These stories, rich with information and imbued with cultural significance, help the group to survive and thrive in their environment.

Social learning flourishes in this proto-language context. Knowledge is not just a set of instructions but a tapestry of narratives that teach and entertain, forging stronger community ties. The tales of successful hunts, of encounters with predators, and of the changing seasons become part of a shared heritage, passed down through generations. This cultural continuity is vital, ensuring that each new generation benefits from the accumulated wisdom of their predecessors.

Imagined image depicting two Homo heidelbergensis individuals at different stages of their evolutionary timeline. The first individual represents what they might have looked like around 650,000 years ago, and the second shows them around 440,000 years ago, just before the transition towards Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.

The proto-language of Homo heidelbergensis and early Neanderthals represents a pivotal stage in the evolution of human communication. It is a testament to the adaptive power of language, enabling our ancestors to navigate their world with greater precision and cohesion. As we look back on this era, we see the foundations of storytelling, cultural transmission, and social bonding that will ultimately lead to the rich, complex languages that define humanity today. The journey from simple grunts to proto-language is a journey of increasing complexity, driven by the relentless push of evolution and the ever-growing needs of human societies.

True-Language Emerges: 700,000 to 200,000 Years Ago

As we delve into the period between 700,000 and 200,000 years ago, we encounter the dawn of true language, a transformative phase in the history of human communication. Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, continuing their evolutionary journey, began to develop language capabilities that were remarkably sophisticated compared to their predecessors. This era heralded the birth of structured languages, complete with consistent grammar and syntax, which allowed for the sharing of complex stories and ideas, thereby fostering social cohesion and cultural development.

Picture a group of early Homo sapiens huddled together in a cave, the flickering firelight illuminating their faces as they engage in animated conversation. These early humans are no longer limited to simple gestures and basic vocalizations. Instead, they are speaking in a structured language, capable of conveying intricate thoughts and emotions. The development of such languages marks a significant milestone in human evolution, providing the foundation for more advanced social structures and cultural practices.

The emergence of true language is supported by the evolutionary advancements in the human brain and vocal apparatus. Larger, more complex brains enabled our ancestors to process and produce sophisticated speech, while the anatomical changes in the vocal tract allowed for a wider range of sounds. These developments facilitated the creation of languages with consistent grammar and syntax, essential for effective communication. The archaeological record supports this transition, with evidence of increasingly complex tools, art, and early symbolic communication indicating the presence of sophisticated language.

During this period, the teaching of language became a critical aspect of human society. Language was not innate; it had to be learned and passed down from one generation to the next. This process ensured that each new generation could benefit from the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of their ancestors. Variations in language began to emerge, reflecting the diverse environments and experiences of different groups. This linguistic diversity laid the groundwork for the multitude of languages that would eventually spread across the globe.

Imagine a Neanderthal family teaching their children the words and phrases needed for daily survival. These early language lessons were vital, as they equipped the young with the tools to navigate their world and contribute to their community. The ability to communicate complex ideas and emotions strengthened social bonds and enhanced cooperation, key factors in the survival and success of these early humans.

The rise of true language also saw the flowering of cultural expression. With the ability to articulate thoughts and share stories, humans could now preserve and transmit their cultural heritage. The creation of art, the development of rituals, and the telling of myths and legends became integral parts of human society. These cultural practices not only enriched the lives of individuals but also reinforced the social fabric, fostering a sense of identity and belonging within the group.

The period between 700,000 and 200,000 years ago marks a pivotal chapter in the evolution of human communication. The emergence of true language transformed the way our ancestors interacted with each other and their environment. It enabled the transmission of knowledge, the expression of creativity, and the forging of strong social bonds. As we look back on this era, we see the foundations of the rich linguistic and cultural tapestry that defines humanity today. The journey from proto-language to true language is a testament to the extraordinary adaptability and ingenuity of the human species.

Imagined image: Homo sapiens (center) might be a hybrid of two extict human species: Homo heidelbergensis and Homo antecessor. Left is heidelbergensis with its protruding jaw. Right is antessor with his small brain and flatter face.

The progression of human communication continued at an accelerating pace. Between one million and 700,000 years ago, our ancestors, including Homo heidelbergensis and early Neanderthals, likely used a proto-language with a growing vocabulary and structure. This allowed them to share more complex ideas and coordinate their activities with greater precision. The ability to pass down knowledge through storytelling became an essential aspect of their culture, providing the foundation for social cohesion and collective learning.

Homo heidelbergensis in their natural environment from about 600,000 to 200,000 years ago. These early humans built housing structures using wooden poles and large leaves or animal hides. They communicated using a range of gestures, grunts, and facial expressions to convey complex messages and used an early language. While speculative, they are pictured here with slightly more human-like faces and loincloths, representing the range of thought on how human-like they were during this period.

Complex Language is Established: 200,000 Years Ago to Present

As we arrive at the final stretch of our journey through the evolution of human language, we encounter the period from 200,000 years ago to the present. This era, marked by the rise of anatomically modern humans, witnessed the culmination of millions of years of linguistic development. Language became increasingly complex, setting the stage for one of humanity’s most profound achievements: the invention of writing.

Imagine a world where Homo sapiens, equipped with sophisticated vocal and cognitive abilities, engage in rich conversations, sharing not just immediate concerns but also abstract ideas and emotions. By 200,000 years ago, humans had developed complex languages with intricate grammar and syntax, capable of conveying the full spectrum of human experience. This linguistic complexity allowed for the transmission of detailed knowledge, the telling of elaborate stories, and the establishment of intricate social structures.

By the time Homo sapiens emerged around 200,000 years ago, the capacity for language had reached new heights. With more advanced brains and vocal anatomy, early humans developed languages rich in vocabulary and grammar, capable of conveying intricate ideas and emotions. This linguistic prowess set the stage for the development of symbolic thought and, eventually, the invention of writing. The first cave paintings and carvings, dating back tens of thousands of years, are a testament to our ancestors’ growing ability to communicate abstract concepts and preserve knowledge.

Composite skull reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils from Jebel Irhoud (Morocco), circa 300,000 BCE. Living reconstruction at the Neanderthal Museum (Erkrath, Mettmann) from the Jebel Irhoud site. Plus some of their Middle Stone Age stone tools from Jebel Irhoud. All reliably dated to circa 300,000 BCE.

The evolution of human language is a remarkable testament to our species’ ingenuity and adaptability. From the first grunts and gestures to the complex languages of today, our capacity to communicate has been a driving force behind our social and cultural development. Understanding this journey not only illuminates our past but also enriches our appreciation of the sophisticated languages we use to navigate the modern world.

The evolution of complex language laid the groundwork for another monumental leap: the development of writing systems around 5,000 years ago. Before writing, early humans expressed themselves through symbolic representations, such as cave paintings and carvings. These early artworks, like the Blombos Cave engravings and the Chauvet Cave paintings, serve as evidence of our ancestors’ capacity for abstract thought and communication. They mark the dawn of a new era where humans could preserve and share knowledge across generations and geographies.

The advent of writing marked a significant milestone in human communication. It allowed for the accurate recording of history, the codification of laws, and the flourishing of literature and science. With writing, civilizations could accumulate and transmit vast amounts of knowledge, fostering technological advancements and complex societal structures. This cultural explosion saw the rise of great civilizations, from Mesopotamia and Egypt to the Indus Valley and China, each contributing to the tapestry of human progress.

Archaeological evidence paints a vivid picture of our linguistic evolution. The complexity of early tools and the sophistication of symbolic communication indicate that early humans possessed advanced language skills. The need to teach and learn these skills would have required a relatively sophisticated form of language, further corroborating the idea of advanced communication abilities in our ancestors.

Paleoneurology, the study of fossilized skulls, reveals an increase in brain size and complexity over millions of years, particularly in areas associated with language and social interaction. This suggests that the evolution of language was closely tied to the development of the human brain, reflecting the intricate interplay between biological and cultural evolution.

As we conclude this exploration of human linguistic evolution, we see a remarkable journey from simple grunts and gestures to the complex languages and writing systems of today. The development of language has been a driving force behind our social and cultural achievements, enabling us to share knowledge, express creativity, and build civilizations. Understanding this journey not only illuminates our past but also enriches our appreciation of the sophisticated communication that defines us as a species. The story of language is a testament to the extraordinary adaptability and ingenuity of humanity, a narrative that continues to unfold with each passing generation.

–map / TST

Footnotes:

  1. Mech, L. D., & Boitani, L. (2003). Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. University of Chicago Press.
  2. Fox, M. W. (1971). Behavior of Wolves, Dogs, and Related Canids. Harper & Row.
  3. Schenkel, R. (1967). Submission: Its Features and Function in the Wolf and Dog. American Zoologist, 7(2), 319-329.
  4. The actual range for the human-wolf last common answer is 95 to 125 mya.
Put it all into perspective…

To fully understand the context of human language to your life, nothing can replace reading the full story of human thought. My latest book, my 15th, tells the story of our best and current ideas from 2600 BCE to today, all from our modern viewpoint and understanding. With a modern perspective, it weaves together history, science, and philosophy to illuminate the intricate web of human thought. Embark on this journey and witness the remarkable evolution of our ideas through the ages.

Coming December 2024: Immerse yourself in knowledge, not snippets.

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By Mike Prestwood
Natural Philosopher

Mike’s throwback title simply means he writes about philosophy, science, critical thinking, and history with a focus on exploring boundaries and intersections. While his focus is on our rational ideas about empirical observations, he does enjoy dabbling in the irrational. His exploration of the empirical led him to develop his Idea of Ideas which allows him to understand what is empirical, rational, and irrational as well as to easily understand what is empirically true, rational true, and irrationally false.

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