Inspired: The antiquity of speech

14 July 2016

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Rock Webb.

The first caption as you enter the gallery for ‘THIS IS A VOICE‘ exhibition states “voice is the original instrument”. Further, that original human voice, or song, has its origins in the need for humans to socially attach as changes took place within human evolution. Hominins essentially developed a new method of bonding to replace the increasingly inefficient and time-consuming physical grooming; vocal grooming if you like. Speech as we know it is exclusively human. It is behaviourally advanced and unprecedented, involving extraordinary use of our lips, tongue, larynx and as well as our brain.

It was long believed that speech only evolved in the last 100,000 years, quite suddenly and was unique to modern humans. Early research suggested that only Homo sapiens had the ability to speak, largely because of the alignment of the hyoid bone in the neck. However, fossilised remains have since challenged this statement. Certainly, Neanderthals were not anatomically deficient and they were not so different from us after all. In addition, the importance of the hyoid may have been somewhat overstated. In fact, archaic hominins probably possessed the key physical make-up as far back as 500,000 years ago. Thus, it can be argued that speech acquisition was more transitional and rooted much deeper in antiquity.

 C0030549 Pre-historic Skulls

A Neanderthal skull next to a human skull.

Of course, having the necessary vocal tools does not automatically mean that other species of hominins were utilising them as we have evolved to do. Did our ancestors possess the necessary cognitive capacity to develop speech? So-called modern human behaviour associated with brain expansion, such as abstract or symbolic thought, is one measure. There is an abundance of evidence for this within the past 100,000 years, associated with modern humans: art, ritual, fire making, strategising, etc.

Unfortunately, the picture for other human species is less complete. Complex activities, such as developed stone tool making, does indicate that archaic hominins laid the foundations for future human behaviour, but not necessarily evidence for modernity.

It would be wrong to claim outright that only modern humans have ever spoken. Understanding the capabilities of extinct species of humans is fraught with difficulty especially as conclusions are merely interpretations of the evidence available. Traditional study methods are being constantly complemented with new ones and genetics is definitely changing the picture of human evolution. Both the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes have been sequenced, and DNA analysis is currently helping to confirm the relationship between modern and archaic humans. And, maybe one day, the antiquity of speech.

THIS IS A VOICE‘ is open until 31 July. See it while you can!

Rock is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.