Opinions have varied wildly as to whether the roots of language run extremely deep in the human lineage, or, alternatively, whether this unprecedented capacity is a recent acquisition. The question has been exacerbated by the fact that language itself does not preserve, so that its possession by earlier hominids has had to be inferred from indirect material proxies. Here I argue that while most technological putative proxies from the Paleolithic are certainly evidence of highly complex cognitive states among our precursors, virtually none of them can reliably be taken as witness to the specific symbolic cognitive style that human beings share today—and with which language is intricately intertwined. Symbolic reasoning can only be confidently inferred from explicitly symbolic objects. These latter only became integral to hominid societies within the tenure of anatomically modern Homo sapiens, and their appearance marked an extreme inflection in the tempo of change as seen in the archaeological record. I thus suggest that the neural capacity for symbolic reasoning and language was acquired during the major developmental reorganization that gave rise to the highly anatomically distinctive H. sapiens some 200 thousand years ago, but that that the new potential was not exploited until about 100 thousand years later, when it was released by what was necessarily a cultural stimulus. Most probably, this stimulus was the spontaneous invention of externalized structured language. This brings the origin of language into the realm of exaptation and emergence—both of them familiar evolutionary phenomena requiring no special explanation—and excludes the long-term fine-tuning of language and human reasoning by natural selection.
KeywordsHomo sapiens Language origins Human evolution Symbolic objects Symbolic cognition
I wish to thank Professor Francesco Ferretti and the organizing committee of Protolang4 for their kind invitation to participate in that stimulating end enjoyable conference. My thanks go also to Alessandra Chiera for efficiently taking care of the details of my attendance, and to two anonymous reviewers for their comments.
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