Remember the Great Leap Forward?

Approximately 40,000 years ago. Human artifacts are revolutionized. We directly see:

We can indirectly infer:


In a way art seems most uniquely human.

There is at least some evidence of an asthetic sense among non-modern hominids, including this acheulian hand axe that incorporates a fossil sea urchin.
In the age of photography it has progressed from the utilitarian and representational..... purely abstract. Indeed, none of the following would seem out of place in a contemporary gallery.

The artist.
The artist.

The artist.

The artist.
All of this makes us wonder about how widespread things like "art" and "culture" - broadly defined - are among non-humans. Consider the bowerbirds of Australasia:

The satin bowerbird shows the basic, and arguably instinctive pattern: The male constructs a "bachelor pad" (mating enclosure) that figures prominently in his courtship display, and decorates it with blue objects that amplify his own masculine indigo blue color.

Other species, such as the dull-colored bowerbird, construct much more elaborately decorated display arenas. These have been studied extensively by Jared Diamond, who reports diverse regional "traditions" and individual preferences of bower construction. Moreover, juvenile males learn the skill by observing adults, and their first attempts tend to be crude and poorly received. (Sound familiar?)
The plainer the male, the more elaborate the decoration.

The great thing is that the birds, both male and female, act as if they are appreciating a learned sense of artistic aesthetics, just as humans do when they visit a concert or dance, even if the ultimate point of the activity is to pair up with a mate.

This is revealing about bowerbirds, but what does it say about the human lineage? Alas, we have very few hints of the aesthetic sense of wild non-human primates. Nevertheless, there are hints:


For language, (ironically) we can say much less. Indeed, it seems plausible that the behavioral differences between pre and post Great Leap behavior is due to the acquiaition or fine tuning of language skills. [Class activity emphasizing utility of language. Audio resource]

So, what can we say about "primitive" human language? Not much directly, as no such thing currently exists. We can circumscribe it by looking at non-linguistic communication in non-humans and in humans.

Before we start, consider the checkered history of studies of animal intelligence.

Recognizibility of language: Reductionists are right about one thing: It's difficult to know if you are observing a communication system if the system is not one you understand.

This much we know: The call-systems of some animals can be quite sophisticated. Diamond discusses the call-system used by vervet monkeys that is capable of making fine discriminations and that young vervets must learn to use properly.
Pioneers in animal articulation: We just don't know how much information is conveyed in the call-systems of creatures like gorillas, chimpanzees, orcas, and dolphins; or whether these systems incorporate elements of symbolic language. In the laboratory, however, some non-humans have mastered some (parrots) or all (apes) elements of symbolic language. Some famous articulate non-humans include:

But watch out! Animal communication experiments can yield insights about what goes on in critters' minds, but are subject to human weakness. If experiments aren't rigorously designed, we end up measuring an effect that is basically non-linguistic or indulging in wishful thinking. E.G.:

A look at the grammar of Nim's most ambitious utterance, "Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you," indicates the cause of Terrace's concern. Nim's failure cast doubt on the achievements of Washoe, Koko, and Michael. Were they examples of the Clever Hans Phenomenon? Terrace's detractors noted:

The debates still rages, however Terrace's concerns stimulated more rigorous studies that avoided ASL's interpretational pitfalls:

So what do we actually know based on human development, animal language experiments, etc.?

The punch line

All of these animals are social, tropical, long-lived, long-distance foragers that need to be aware of the locations and timing of intermittant food sources like fruiting trees in a complex three-dimensional environment. Perhaps these factors provide an evolutionary incentive for the evolution both of "proto-language" (on the level we see in apes and parrots) and hierarchical thinking. Indeed, we don't know which of these skills is initially the most important. This could be an instance of pleiotropy. Who can say which skill initially conferred the major advantage, strung-together utterances or the ability to categorize. This proto-linguistic tendency, however, would have been exapted for the evolution of proper language, possibly when combined with vocal learning facilitated by the appearance of the FOX-P2 gene. Maybe this was the innovation of the great leap forward, or maybe it had already occurred and the leap capitalized on it.

The human side

Do human languages have common features that are not inherent consequences of the concepts that it conveys?

Creoles: As Diamond describes, there does seem to be a basic, hard wired, grammatical archetype in the human mind, but it is easily overwhelmed by culture and environment. Where it appears is in creoles, languages that arise among the children raised in environments lacking proper language. Creole languages may have vocabulary drawn from different sources, but contain the following common features:

Indeed, children must often be specifically taught not to use these constructions in languages that lack them (like double-negtives in English).

Thus, a kind of primordial grammatical template seems to exist, but is often overridden by derived grammatical rules of normal languages.