More on the beginning of language

At the end of the 19th century, a Xam/San man (we call them “Bushmen”) in South Africa looked at a figure in a prehistoric rock painting and said “That’s a shaman!” (This account taken from The Mind in the Cave, by David Lewis-Williams, published by Thames & Hudson in 2002.) Nobody knows for certain what happened 70,000 years ago in the mountains where the modern Bushmen still live, but scholars had been studying the prehistoric rock paintings they found there, and puzzling over what they meant. The Xam/San have been continuously living in this area since before history began, and until the 20th century took full hold, their lives had not changed much. They have always lived off of the meager takings in the Kalahari Desert. The Xam/San man’s reaction to the painting is a clue to what happened 70,000 years ago, when the painting was created.

The period in which the rock paintings were made is identified as the beginning of human abstraction. A symbolic figure like the shaman represented something that one could not touch, an abstract, godlike figure. There is also evidence from around the same period that ritual burials were conducted, and this suggests also that syntax had developed sufficiently to create verbal rituals which were shared by a large group and used to bury their dead, along with various artifacts. Archaeologists have uncovered many of the artifacts, but the language, of course, is lost, except for its traces among the Xam/San.

There are cave paintings showing women sitting in a circle clapping and singing, with a larger circle of men dancing behind them. What were they saying? There would have been text as well as rhythm. (The modern Xam/San man also recognized the dual circle type of ritual because they still performed it at the end of the 19th century.)

Humans 70,000 (or so) years ago were also experimenting with the mind, performing ritual dances like the dance above, which altered their state of consciousness resulting in trances. This suggests a level of self-awareness not experienced by any other animal, and also a control of language which could trigger, enhance, and then explain these experiences. Trances which alter consciousness are still part of religious experience today. Sometimes they have a linguistic result, Speaking in Tongues.

Without phonographs and television, there is no way to analyze the experiences of prehistoric man, man at the beginning of language. We have only tiny glimpses of the truth through the lives of modern men and women like the Bushmen, paired with rock paintings which portray human behavior, and artifacts which suggest the patterns of prehistoric life. All evidence is circumstantial. There will never be proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Archaeology and anthropology have developed as rapidly as astronomy over the last century, and circumstantial patterns are emerging more and more clearly. The assumption at this point in their research is that humans emerged in southern Africa, where the Bushmen still live, and dispersed to Asia and then to Europe. Language probably began as part of burial and religious rituals in those early days, and later became the glue which held communities together and made possible their cooperative efforts as they took the long journeys to Asia and Europe.

In their new book, Linguistics (published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2012), Anne E. Baker and Kees Hengeveld catalogue the differences between human and animal language. Neanderthals and the predecessors of homo sapiens communicated, of course, but language rose to a more complex intellectual endeavor at some point. Bees, for example, will perform their “wiggle dance” pointing to the source of the materials to make honey whether or not any other bees are watching, and will perform the same dance every time. They never “just do a little dance.” The bees cannot say what the weather was like, or that they encountered other bees en route. Human language requires cooperation – the interaction between one speaker and another; creativity – the ability to create unique sentences upon demand; spontaneity – the use of language whether or not there is a prompt; and arbitrariness – the use of vocabulary and syntax which is created without any natural reason. We call a bee bee, Greeks call it melissa, and the French call it abeille, for no particular reason. The important factor is mutual comprehensibility – cooperation — and we could agree on any word we chose to accomplish that.

This reflection on the beginnings of human language is not meant to be comprehensive, and certainly not meant to be right. Not even the greatest archaeologist would claim to be “right.” It’s food for thought as we speak our way through our lives.

In my opinion, language smothers our familiarity with the biological patterns which direct our lives just as powerfully as our minds do, but that blog belongs to somebody else.

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