Hand Gestures May Have Been the Start of Human Language

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Language gave humans a leg up compared to all other species. By working together outside of the family unit through communication, we were able to hunt and gather, farm, and build great civilizations.

There’s a lot we don’t know about how it all started because there were no recording devices, and the first writing didn’t occur until around 3200 B.C.E. As a result, there’s no record of how it all began, but we do have some clues. 

Language and Social Structure

It’s important to note that researchers don’t agree on what the origins of language are, but we do know that language gave humans an extraordinary ability to cooperate with people whom they weren’t related to, says Mark Pagel, a professor of evolutionary biology and expert in the origins of language at the University of Reading.

“Language is the conduit that allows us to figure out who we’re going to cooperate with,” says Pagel. When we talk to people, we gather information that allows us to decide who we will work with in order to accomplish tasks. Through language we decide who’s allowed within our cooperative network. “No other species does this the way that humans do,” says Pagel.

For example, chimpanzees, our closest relatives, work together within their family network but not usually outside of it. Our social structure, on the other hand, is so complicated because we are able to communicate across wide networks with language.

“Language is so utterly powerful that any species that had it would have done incredible things,” says Pagel. 

Read More: When Did Humans Evolve Language?

Did Human Language Start with Hand Gestures?

Richard Futrell, an associate professor at the University of California Irvine Department of Language Science, contends that we have to ask how we got to where we are today starting with what other animals have, which is a small repertoire of sounds and signals with various meanings. “We really don’t have any evidence for what would have happened in between,” says Futrell.

But one thought is that we started off with a small set of vocal sounds, and as we got more intelligent, we needed to communicate more complex ideas. At that point, we started combining these sounds to form sentences.

Another thought is that it got started by using hand gestures. “We do see pretty complex communication by hand gestures among the great apes, which is our closest evolutionary ancestor,” says Futrell.

A study published in the March 2022 edition of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences “supports the hypothesis that gesture is the primary modality for language creation.” Gestures, says Futrell, would have at some point been paired with vocalizations which would have eventually turned into what we have today.

Pagel, on the other hand, is less sure about hand gestures. He says that nobody really knows whether hand gestures were involved, but we do know that humans are “virtuosos at making sound” and that while we may have used gestures to emphasize communication, sound was the basis of it. Pagel says that it’s an “empty statement” to contend that language started with hand gestures because, though they may have played a role, it is sound that separates humans from all other species. 

Read More: How Language Shapes Our Understanding of Reality

Language of Neanderthals 

In the same way that there’s disagreement among researchers around how language started, there’s also disagreement around whether Homo sapiens were the only species to communicate this way. Futrell says that Neanderthals had pretty complex behaviors, including burying their dead and distilling glue out of tree bark. 

“It’s hard to imagine that they could have done such complex tasks without language, especially because many of these skills would have been passed from one generation to the next,” Futrell says. “But that’s really all we can say because there’s no direct evidence.” 

Pagel disagrees. He says that the origins of language began when our common ancestor split into H. sapiens and Neanderthals. He thinks that Neanderthals likely did not have language in the way that humans do because of the cognitive requirements. “Language is symbolic, and we don’t see the same signs of culture that we see in H. Sapiens,” he says. For example, we don’t see the same complicated art and musical instruments that we see from humans occurring at around the same time. 

“Humans make these incredibly arbitrary sounds, and yet they carry these deep and sublime meanings,” says Pagel. He says that Neanderthals obviously communicated, but they didn’t have the complexity of language that he contends is uniquely human.

Still, both Futrell and Pagel agree that there’s just no way to know for sure and anyone who claims that they have evidence to the contrary is probably overstating what we can know. We can’t reconstruct the vocal apparatus of Neanderthals because it’s made up of soft tissues that don’t fossilize. Either way, in the end, it is language that separates the human race, but how it all began is difficult to know for sure.

Read More: The Fascinating World of Neanderthal Diet, Language and Other Behaviors

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