Field of Science

Origin of Language Pinpointed

Scientists have long debated the evolution of language. Did it emerge along with the appearance of modern homo sapiens, 130,000-200,000 years ago? Or did it happen as late as 50,000 years ago, explaining the cultural ferment at that time? What are we to make of the fact that Neanderthals may have had the ability to produce sounds similar to those of modern humans?

In a stunning announcement this morning, freelance writer Joshuah Bearman announced that he had pinpointed the exact location, if not the date, of the origin of modern language: Lake Turkana in Kenya.


Actually, what Bearman says is
This is where Homo sapiens emerged. It is the same sunset our ancestors saw, walking through this very valley. To the north is Lake Turkana, where the first words were spoken. To the south is Laetoli, where, in 1978, Mary Leakey's team was tossing around elephant turds when they stumbled across two sets of momentous footprints: bipedal, tandem, two early hominids together...
Since this is in an article about a wedding, I suspect tha Bearman was not actually intending to floor the scientific establishment with an announcement; he assumed this was common knowledge. I can't begin to imagine where he got this idea though. I wondered if perhaps this was some sort of urban legend (like all the Eskimo words for snow), but Googling has turned up nothing, though of course some important archaeological finds come from that region.


Probably he heard it from a tour guide (or thought he had heard something like that from a tour guide). Then neither he nor his editor bothered to think through the logic: how would we know where the first words were spoken, given that there can be no archaeological record? It's unlikley we'll ever even find the first human(s), given the low likelihood of fossilization.

I have some sympathy. Bearman was simply trying to provide a setting for his story. In one of my first published travel articles, I similarly mentioned in passing that Lake Baikal (the topic of my story) was one of the last strongholds of the Whites in the Russian Revolution. I have no idea where I got that idea, since it was completely untrue. (Though, in comparison with the Lake Turkana hypothesis, at least my unfounded claim was possible.)

So I'm sympathetic. I also had to write a correction for a subsequent issue. Bearman?

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