Human Evolution

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 53–70 | Cite as

Possible preadaptations to speech. A preliminary comparative

  • Verhaegen M. 
  • Munro S. 


Human language is a unique phenomenon and its evolutionary origins are uncertain. In this paper we attempt to explore some of the preadaptations that might have contributed to the origin of human speech.

The comparative approach we use is based on the assumption that all features of a species are functional, and that all features can be compared with those of other animals and correlated with certain lifestyles. Using this method we attempt to reconstruct the different evolutionary pathways of humans and chimpanzees after they split from a common ancestor. Previous results from comparative studies suggest human ancestors may not have evolved on the open African savannas as was once believed, but more probably were coastal omnivores feeding on plant matter and easy to catch invertebrates such as shellfish from beaches and shallow waters. Fossil and archaeological data suggest this coastal phase occurred at the beginning of the Pleistocene, whenHomo ergaster-erectus dispersed between East-Africa, North-Africa, South-Asia and Indonesia.

This paper presents comparative data suggesting the various human speech skills may have had their origins at different times and may originally have had different functions. Possible preadaptations to speech include, for instance, musical skills present in a variety of primate species (sound production); airway closure and breath-hold diving for collecting seafood (voluntary breath control); and suction feeding adaptations for the consumption of fruit juice or certain seafoods (fine control of oropharyngeal movements). The different evolutionary pathways of chimpanzees and humans might explain why chimpanzees lack language skills and why human language is a relatively recent phenomenon.


Stone Tool Harbour Seal Sound Production Elephant Seal Humpback Whale 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© International Institute for the Study of Man 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Verhaegen M. 
    • 1
  • Munro S. 
    • 2
  1. 1.Studiecentrum AntropologiePutteBelgium
  2. 2.School of Archaeology and AnthropologyAustralian National UniversityAustralia

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