Humanity's First Words: Older Than Previously Believed

Written by Camilla Jessen

Apr.03 - 2024 9:00 PM CET

Photo: Akkharat Jarusilawong /
Photo: Akkharat Jarusilawong /
New research suggests that the human ability to use language originated over 1.6 million years ago, significantly earlier than previously believed.

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New research led by a prominent British archaeologist suggests that the human ability to communicate through language might have roots stretching back more than 1.6 million years — a significantly older dating than previously assumed. This finding challenges traditional theories about the origin of language and emphasizes the role of language in the evolutionary success of humans.

More Than Just Words

Without venomous stings, sharp claws, or imposing horns, humans have instead developed unique traits such as opposable thumbs, a large brain, and — possibly most crucially — the ability to communicate through language. This ability has not only provided us with a means of expression but has been essential for our ability to survive and thrive in an often hostile world.

Archaeological Discoveries Shed New Light

The prominent archaeologist, Professor Steven Mithen from the University of Reading, has proposed a groundbreaking theory. Through an extensive analysis of archaeological, paleo-anatomical, linguistic, neurological, and genetic data, he suggests that humans began developing language far earlier than previously thought.

Mithen's research indicates that the human brain experienced significant growth and reorganization — specifically in the frontal lobe associated with language — around 1.5 million years ago. This finding suggests that language is not a relatively new development but a deeply ingrained trait that has played a critical role in our species' survival and evolution.

The Key to the Language Mystery

There are several areas of the brain that play a critical role in speech and language. According to Mithen, however, the key to the language mystery can be found in a specific part of the brain known as Broca's area. Located in the left hemisphere, the Broca's area is crucial for our ability to produce language, articulate ideas, and comprehend words accurately, both in spoken and written form.

Research indicates that this area may have evolved from earlier structures responsible for communication through hand and arm movements, and its emergence correlates with an improvement in working memory, which is crucial for constructing sentences.

Mithen's analyses suggest that the human ability to speak may have emerged with Homo erectus more than 1.6 million years ago. Along with the refined ability to walk on two legs, the shape of their vocal cords may have changed, enabling them to speak.

Hunting, Tools, and Language: An Evolutionary Triad

Further evidence supports the idea that the development of language went hand in hand with other key human milestones, such as the development of hunting and the manufacture of advanced tools. These activities required foresight and coordination, skills likely facilitated through linguistic communication.

This supports the theory that language has been a crucial factor in humans' ability to colonize various environments globally.

The findings from Mithen's research, published in the book The Language Puzzle, not only push the boundaries of our understanding of language but also invite further studies into human history and how our unique abilities have shaped our history and culture. By shedding light on the deep roots of language, Mithen provides valuable insight into how this uniquely human trait has contributed to our species' incredible adaptability and success.