Language started 1.5m years earlier than previously thought as scientists say Homo Erectus were first to talk
In the beginning was the word. And it was first spoken by Homo Erectus, according to a controversial new theory.
Most paleontologists believe language emerged with the evolution of Homo Sapiens around 350,000 years ago.
But Daniel Everett, Professor of Global Studies, at Bentley University, Massachusetts, author of How Language Began, claims our earlier ancestors must have been able to talk to each other.
Prof Everett, claims that Homo Erectus, who lived from 1.8 million years ago, invented language and used it to hunt and build boats to colonise remote islands such as Flores in Indonesia and Crete, where fossils have been found even though there was never a land link with Africa.
Speaking at the AAAS annual meeting in Austin, Texas, he said: “Everybody talks about Homo Erectus as a stupid ape-like creature, which of course describes us just as well, and yet what I want to emphasize is that Erectus was the smartest creature that had ever walked the Earth.
“They had planning abilities. They made tools. But the most incredible tools that Erectus made were vessels for sailing the open ocean.
“Oceans were never a barrier to the travels of Erectus. They travelled all over the world. It was intentional they needed craft and they needed to take groups of twenty or so at least to get to those places.
“Erectus needed language when they were sailing to the island of Flores. They couldn’t have simply caught a ride on a floating log because then they would have been washed out to see when they hit the current. They needed to be able to paddle.
“And if they paddled they needed to be able to say ‘paddle there’ or ‘don’t paddle.’ You need communication with symbols not just grunts. They accomplished too much for this to simply be the sort of communication that we see in other species without symbols.”
Homo Erectus was the first member of our genus homo, and so was the first species of human.
It stood up to five feet 11 inches tall, and had the biggest brain of any land animal that had ever lived, around 950CC, roughly the size of European females today.
They had sophisticated settlements, with separate areas for processing plants and animals, as well as for living, sleeping and engaging in communal activities, Prof Everett told delegates.
There is also evidence that they had symbolic objects. A 250,000 year old carving of a woman was found in Berekhat Ram, Israel, 250,000 years ago.
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“They certainly were not incapable of speech they just would have had a different speech,” said Prof Everett.
“Homo Erectus spoke and invented the Model T Ford of language. We speak the Tesla form, but their Model T form was not a proto-language it was a real language.
“Homo Erectus needs more respect, Homo Neanderthalis was born into a linguistic world. Homo Sapiens was born into a linguistic world. We just inherited what Homo Erectus had invented for us.” However Professor Chris Stringer from The Natural History Museum in London, was more skeptical about the clams.
“I don’t accept that, for example that Erectus must have had boats to get to Flores,” he said.
“Tsunamis could have moved early humans on rafts of vegetation. That said I think homo heidelbergensis (another early human who lived between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago) had a complex enough life to require speech, though not at a level of modern human language. With Erectus, I’m not so sure.”