Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Evolution of Language: Where Archaeology Merges with Science

Language development is one of the most important areas of study in ancient archaeology. It is language that basically differentiates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom and allowed us to dominate the globe like no other species ever has. However, evidence of the origin of language is incredibly hard to find. Written language was developed long after spoken language, so there are no written records of the development of language to look at. It is near impossible to look at the tools of ancient humans and sites where they lived and infer about possible language being spoken like we do to infer about other aspects of their lives.

The answer may lie in more of a scientific and anthropological approach. Observing the current world and using it to infer about the past is a popular strategy for many other topics of archaeology. Many of the theories on hunter-gatherer cultures in pre-historic Africa are based on observations of current hunter-gatherer cultures. And now, closely studying the people and other animal species of today has led to an exciting breakthrough and clues to understanding how language developed.

The idea that acquiring language is a biological facet of humans was originated by Noam Chomsky. Children acquire language too efficiently and effortlessly for it to simply be a social construct. From this, theories followed that we should be able to see some form of evidence of the development of language in the path through our evolutionary ancestors that still survive today, such as chimpanzees. So while archaeology yearns for ancient artifacts about language, perhaps there are records in our DNA.

Scientists actually believe they have found one of the most important genes for developing language. The gene is FOXP2, meaning that the gene creates the protein FOXP2. Through studying a unique family and another unrelated young boy, all of who struggle with language in specific ways, they found that all of them had deficiencies in this gene. The scientists then did a bit of "scientific archaeology" on the evolution of this gene. A version of the gene exists in every land vertebrate, and in most specie lineages has remained pretty much unchanged. In the human branch, however, changes to several of the amino acids that make up the protein FOXP2 occured over the course of a few million years, which the scientists took as a sign that this gene experienced rapid natural selection, similar to other features of humans such as our upright posture or large brains. Further studies have also found that this protein is actually facilitator of many other genes, aiding in the growth of neurons in the brain and fine muscle movements that would be used in creating sounds in speech.

Ultimately, the findings on the FOXP2 gene don't answer exactly how language biologically developed in us. It is only a beginning piece for understanding the process. Its value to archaeological studies, however, is still priceless. As we understand this gene (its processes and functions as well as its development) more, we can then look for indirect clues of its evolution in the archaeological evidence. For instance, maybe we won't be able to see direct signs of the first spoken language, but if we learn of other physical changes that this gene created as it evolved, then perhaps we could find pieces of evidence indicating these physical alterations and then infer that at this time humans could have been speaking. Already connections can be made (albeit fairly thin connections). The FOXP2 gene, as previously mentioned, helps to facilitate the learning of new motor skills. When humans developed, they had to learn a whole range of new motor movements associated with being human, like running and calling. These changes, as observed through archaeological study, are already evidence that this gene was actively helping us to evolve into present day humans. Hopefully with further study and understanding of the FOXP2 gene we will be able to draw even more connections about how it helped us develop more complex brains and master complex sounds, leading to the first words spoken between ancient humans.

-Chris Vandenberg


Discover Magazine: The Language Fossils Buried in Every Cell of Your Body

FOXP2 and the Evolution of Language

1 comment:

  1. thanks for this chris - another dimension to our evolutionary history that is fascinating to consider