Humans started talking 1.6 million years ago, study finds

Early humans first started talking around 1.6 million years ago. This is stated in a study of the University of Reading, reports The Independent.

Rudimentary language appeared in hominid societies of eastern or southern Africa. The development of speech made further physical and cultural evolution possible.

Until recently, most human evolution experts thought humans only started speaking around 200,000 years ago. But new research, published this month, suggests that rudimentary human language is at least eight times older. This analysis is based on a detailed study of all the available archaeological, paleo-anatomical, genetic, neurological, and linguistic evidence.

Significantly, human brain size increased particularly rapidly from 2 million BC, especially after 1.5 million BC. Associated with that brain size increase was a reorganization of the internal structure of the brain—including the first appearance of the area of the frontal lobe, specifically associated with language production and language comprehension. Known to scientists as Broca’s area, it seems to have evolved out of earlier structures responsible for early humanity’s ability to communicate with hand and arm gestures.

New scientific research suggests that the appearance of Broca’s area was also linked to improvements in working memory—a factor crucial to sentence formation.

But other evolutionary developments were also crucial for the birth of rudimentary language. The emergence, around 1.8 million years ago, of a more advanced form of bipedalism, together with changes in the shape of the human skull, almost certainly began the process of changing the shape and positioning of the vocal tract, thus making speech possible.

Other key evidence pointing to around 1.6 million BC as the approximate date humans started speaking, comes from the archaeological record. Compared to many other animals, humans were not particularly strong. To survive and prosper, they needed to compensate for that relative physical weakness.

What’s more, linguistic communication was probably crucial in allowing humans to survive in different ecological and climatic zones—it’s probably no coincidence that humans were able to massively accelerate their colonization of the world around 1.4 million years ago, i.e., shortly after the likely date of the birth of language. Language enabled humans to do three key forward-looking things—to conceive of and plan future actions and to pass on knowledge.

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