Language in Early Human History: An Influential Technology?

Dante Fuoco

Though language does not ostensibly seem as much of a technology as a bow-and-arrow or tamed fire might, its undeniable potential to foster productive communication must be examined when exploring how early humans interacted with their environment. Despite the fact that some refer to language as the “glue of modern society” (McKie), it is admittedly a hard topic to discuss. Knowledge about language, like many other elements of early human history, is elusive and equivocal; after all, it is impossible before the advent of writing to have a tangible record of it. At the same time, it is safe to contend that language is a technology. Undoubtedly, speech existed as one crucial piece in separating humans from primates (Ponting 24), meaning that its development runs parallel to hominids gaining more control of the environment. Moreover, language—whether gestural, vocal, or some other form—fosters communication that, in turn, could have enabled early humans to better overcome difficulties presented to them by their environment. In other words, language could have been used by humans as a form of survival and possibly enhanced the effectiveness of already present “technologies.” For example, language, whether early gestures or later vocalization, could have been used as a warning sign from one human in the tribe to another that an animal was attacking. In terms of hunting, communication would undoubtedly have given security to the hunters and, even, added a level of organization to better their efforts. A similar point could be said about fire, another form of technology: With a type of language, humans could communicate with others in their groups and better coordinate different tasks. More importantly, language presumably has a dimension of evolutionary benefit for several generations. After all, communication, through warnings and coordination, could have helped ensure the survival of the then-current generation, and, through an education of skills such as hunting and fire taming, it even could have helped ensure future generations’ survival.

Brian MacWhinney’s cogent and comprehensive “Language Evolution and Human Development” presents credible evidence for these hypothetical claims and, in turn, stresses the immense influence that early humans’ utilization of language had on the environment. Though respected linguists such as Noah Chomsky contend that language developed as recently as 40,000 years ago, MacWhinney argues that this language, in all of its complexity, had to have “been foreshadowed by major developments during the rest of our 6 million year history” (MacWhinney 383). He cites evidence that supports the idea that humans relied on vocal, albeit limited, communication as long ago as 300,000 years (MacWhinney 383) and that brain size began tripling around three million years ago (MacWhinney 384). During this time, he notes that human society went through a parallel process of development—from social group expansion to the development of tools. He does this, in part, to lend weight to the theory of coevolution. This theory stresses that the development of neurological and physiological capabilities caused advancement in early human planning and communication that, in a circular way, brought about more neurological and physiological developments. In other words, “It depicts a species that is slowly and steadily moving toward fuller and fuller control over its environment” (MacWhinney 384). He presents the strong example that humans’ development of standing upright (which is also noted as a trait that separates humans and primates [Ponting 24]) gave early humans a more precise grasp, thus the new potential to handle tools and use gestural communication. This ability then put pressure on neural mechanisms, and early humans’ cognitive abilities developed (MacWhinney 386-387). As he notes, the coevolution theory is flawed in part because many believe that early humans did not continually gain control over their environment—for example, early humans are believed to have almost become extinct about 70,000 years ago, when the population was believed to be no larger than 10,000 (MacWhinney 384). Persuasively, however, MacWhinney defends his claim by noting that this period may have added the last bit of evolutionary pressure for modern language to develop, which it supposedly did soon after (MacWhinney 384).

Additionally, MacWhinney’s subsequent evidence and analysis of language’s development is compelling and, more importantly, quite sensible. Pliocene ancestors are believed to have used specific calls and gestures “to gain the attention of their compatriots to negotiate the basics of group relations” (MacWhinney 389), a development facilitated by the aforementioned bipedal gait and consequent face-to-face communication. MacWhinney goes on to discuss “mimesis,” which is more primitive than a lexical language but advanced enough that Homo erectus at the time was able to “reach new forms of symbolic communication in both vocal and gestural modalities” (MacWhinney 391). Starting possibly two million years ago, mimetic communication could be as simple as gesturing toward a shape or imitating a sound (MacWhinney 392). Through this, scholars believe that males could plan hunts through dances, women could use song to get their children’s attention and educate them on the practices of the community, and groups could plan migrations and major activities (MacWhinney 392). As this mimetic language is believed to have helped lead to a successful migration out of Africa and to Asia, it also greatly fostered social cohesion (MacWhinney 392). With this in mind, it does not seem so farfetched to assert that language was a greatly influential technology, for it helped humans assert greater control over their environment. This point also powerfully links back to my earlier supposition that language has an evolutionary dimension, for he insinuates that it helped early humans’ groups survive and enabled them to pass down important lessons to future generations. MacWhinney, like other scholars, cites this as a large step toward modern language.

MacWhinney claims that early humans got better at articulating precise sounds when Homo sapiens became the dominant species about 200,000 years ago. Early humans’ ability to articulate these sounds was due to a variety of physiological adaptations between 300,000 to 50,000 years ago, such as loss of the canines and bending of the vocal tract (MacWhinney 395). As he discusses how humans had almost become extinct about 70,000 years ago, he interestingly contends that it “is likely that those individuals who survived the evolutionary window at 70,000 years ago were those who had made the greatest progress of consolidating this phonological ability and the group planning which it facilitates” (MacWhinney 395). In other words, it was survival of the fittest. In turn, this low population may have brought about great pressure that, in an evolutionary kind of way, forced humans to link mimetic language with a “new lexical power” (MacWhinney 396). The construction of a mental lexicon was paramount, for it allowed Homo sapiens to “conventionalize, learn, store, and retrieve a virtually limitless set of names for things” (MacWhinney 396). Humans could then name options, properties, actions, animals, and plants as well as pinpoint the location of flints, stone weapons, and tools. Craftsmen’s utilization of language made toolmaking progress, and people were able to explain how, where, and when to plant (MacWhinney 396). As this happened between 70,000 to 40,000 years ago, agriculture evolved, writing flourished, religion developed, and early Middle Eastern, Egyptian, and Chinese cultures grew (MacWhinney 396). MacWhinney finally asserts that “all of these developments are consequences of the introduction of systemization for phonology and lexicon” (MacWhinney 397).

When MacWhinney makes this claim, it is hard to doubt him, for he has presented the reader with a captivating argument. Admittedly, his argument is hardly flawless, especially considering the fact that his field of study is often contentious. Nevertheless, MacWhinney’s claim that language’s evolution greatly correlates to humans’ growing ability to deal with their environment is at least worth considering. Logically, communication between people could have fostered group cohesion, ensured survival of current and future generations, and refined already present practices, such as hunting or taming fire. It seems, too, that humans’ growing control over the environment became so great that, during the final steps toward modern language, there were actual changes reflected in the environment (Williams 12; “Megafauna Extinction”; “Aboriginal Climate Change”). Language, then, could be a technology—and an incredibly influential one at that—because early humans used it greatly to achieve a certain, critical purpose: overcoming environmental challenges.


“Aboriginal Climate Change.” Weekend Edition Sunday. NPR. 17 Mar. 2002.

MacWhinney, Brian. “Language Evolution and Human Development.” Origins of the Social Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and Child Development. Ed. Bjorklund, D. and Pellegrini, A. New York: Guiford Press, 2005. 383-410.

McKie, Robin. “Science Course: Humans: How we got to the top: Once early man had developed an upright stance and ability to make tools, the foundations for world domination were in place, says Robin McKie.” The Guardian. 2008 April 29.

“Megafauna Extinction.” Morning Edition. NPR. 08 Jan. 1999.

Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizaitons. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Williams, Michael. Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

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last updated 3/7/10