Biological Theory

, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 195–210 | Cite as

The Social Trackways Theory of the Evolution of Language

  • Kim Shaw-WilliamsEmail author
Thematic Issue Article: Symbols, Signals, and the Archaeological Record II


The social trackways theory (for full introduction see my previous article on the topic in Biological Theory) is centered on the remarkable 3.66 mya Laetoli Fossilized Trackways, for they incontrovertibly reveal our ancestors were already obligate bipeds with very human-like feet, and were intentionally stepping in other band members’ footprints to maintain safe footing. Trackways are unique among natural sign systems in possessing a depictive narratively generative structure, somewhat like the symbolic sign systems of gestural languages. Therefore, due to daily embodied reiteration of their own and other band member’s old footprints, both for bipedal safety and as recognizable wayfinding markers for socio-ecological navigation, incrementally our Mid-Pliocene ancestors began to acquire a cognitive capacity for episodic personal memories and episodic future simulations. They began mentally representing themselves (and others) as intentional agents continuously travelling from the past into the future. This spatially and temporally self-projecting awareness manifested itself as extra theory of mind and mental space-and-time-travel capacities, which increasingly enabled intentional or conscious, top-down executive adjustment of past behaviors for the sake of achieving better ways of doing things in the future. Future-directed behavioral and cultural adaptations began to increase fitness in all domains, thus creating powerful selective feedback for further entrenchment. Here we focus on overtly or consciously intentional exploratory wayfinding and transmission of elsewhere-and-when information, using pragmatic, discursive modes of communication, which enabled far more cooperative and efficient foraging practices. Selection for better communication thus led to intentional trail marking and the earliest emergence of more conventional/symbolic depictive and gestural “protolanguages.”


Agential self Evolution of language Extra theory of mind Mental space and time travel Observational self Pragmatic discourse 



Earlier drafts of this article were written while I was fully supported by a PhD Research Scholarship from the Australian National University. Many thanks to my present and earlier supervisors Kim Sterelny, Peter Hiscock, Ben Jeffares, Brett Calcott, and Russell Gray; my past and present fellow students, especially Adrian Currie and Anton Killin; my walking/sounding-board friend Antek Skotnicki, and my computer-guru friend John Mills in Lyneham, Canberra; my oldest/longest-suffering nonacademic friends—and, of course, my family—for, let’s face it, their extreme patience, combined with discerning yet always encouraging critiques and/or pragmatic/emotional support. I am also very grateful to friends Ben Frazer and Kirsty Douglas for harboring my old camper van on their property whenever I am not using it as temporary accommodation in Canberra.


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Research School of Social Sciences, School of PhilosophyAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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