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Out of Africa – Human Language takes its first tottering steps

Lascaux Cave Art

Lascaux Cave Art

Pic: Aristos

The Wall Street Journal reports that the world’s 6,000 or so modern languages may have all descended from a single ancestral tongue spoken by early African humans between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago, a new study suggests.

The finding, published Thursday in the journal Science, could help explain how the first spoken language emerged, spread and contributed to the evolutionary success of the human species.

Quentin Atkinson, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and author of the study, found that the first migrating populations leaving Africa laid the groundwork for all the world’s cultures by taking their single language with them—the mother of all mother tongues.

It was the catalyst that spurred the human expansion that we all are a product of.

Dr. Atkinson said.

Painting Cave Art and Making Bone Artefacts

About 50,000 years ago—the exact timeline is debated — there was a sudden and marked shift in how modern humans behaved. They began to create cave art and bone artifacts and developed far more sophisticated hunting tools. Many experts argue that this unusual spurt in creative activity was likely caused by a key innovation: complex language, which enabled abstract thought. The work done by Dr. Atkinson supports this notion.

His research is based on phonemes, distinct units of sound such as vowels, consonants and tones, and an idea borrowed from population genetics known as “the founder effect.” That principle holds that when a very small number of individuals break off from a larger population, there is a gradual loss of genetic variation and complexity in the breakaway group.

Dispersion of Phonemes within Dialects

Dr. Atkinson figured that if a similar founder effect could be discerned in phonemes, it would support the idea that modern verbal communication originated on that continent and only then expanded elsewhere.

In an analysis of 504 world languages, Dr. Atkinson found that, on average, dialects with the most phonemes are spoken in Africa, while those with the fewest phonemes are spoken in South America and on tropical islands in the Pacific.

Dr. Atkinson’s findings are consistent with the prevailing view of the origin of modern humans, known as the “out of Africa” hypothesis. Bolstered by recent genetic evidence, it says that modern humans emerged in Africa alone, about 200,000 years ago. Then, about 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, a small number of them moved out and colonized the rest of the world, becoming the ancestors of all non-African populations on the planet.

Read the full story on the Wall Street Journal website.


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  1. Not sure about this one.

    Other reports in the past have talked of links between Aussie Aborigines and Africans. Australia has 1000s of languages because each aborigine family had its own language, and I have read similar for Africa.

    We seem to have more unified languages now because of our speedy world communications and travel. I cannot see that as possible in ancient times. If you think that as little as 200 years ago it took 7 to 10 days just to travel London to Edinburgh, and compare that to the vast continents the connection of language must have taken 1000s of years.

    I cannot see someone putting sounds to symbols in one place duplicating the same 1000s of miles away. Intriguing article, but on first read I find it boggling. It is a new thought.

  2. Hi John,

    I think the fascinating thing about the research (and I’m not buying it wholesale either) is that it matches the genetic evidence that they’ve acquired through DNA tests about the spread of peoples across the continents. I don’t think they were judging the results by the number of dialects that Africa had but the phoneme complexity of those dialects… I must admit, I haven’t heard and don’t know much about the Australian theory – but it wouldn’t surprise me. I’m not sure that the answers to the migrations of early man are going to be that easily discovered. I think man as a wanderer existed from the earliest of times! :)

    Many hugs and blessings,

    Gary xxx

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