The Origin and Evolution of Human Language
Prof. Suzanne Kemmer
Books, Websites, and other Sources
Terms and abbreviations
proto = "earliest form of". Proto-species or proto-groups are the ancestors of the species/groups named by the root noun.
m = million, my = million years. All year numbers below refer to 'years ago'. In the literature you might see mya following a number which means "[number] million years ago". For timespans in the modern human era, B.C. 'before (birth of) Christ' was traditionally used but now most scholars prefer B.C.E., 'before common era', which is functionally equivalent (2000 B.C. = 2000 years Before Christ = 2000 years before Common Era).
J&E = Johanson and Edgar (2006)
|Oldest mammal fossils
|The 10 mammal families remaining after a mass extinction event begin to rapidly fill ecological niches vacated by dinosaurs and other wiped-out populations.
|Prosimians have evolved (ancestors of lemurs and tarsiers)
Split between old-world monkeys and hominoids (apes,
humans, and their ancestors) (J&E)
|Proto-apes emerge, ancestors of great apes and lesser apes.
|Global climate shift. Africa becomes drier and warmer.
|Proto-hominins emerge, ancestors of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and hominids (proto-humans)
|Proto-hominids and proto-chimpanzees diverge from one another (dates given range from 7mya to 5mya)
|Sahelanthropous tschadensis (J&E). Discovered in 2002 and right now considered the oldest hominid or near-hominid species. Cranium nicknamed "Toumai". Claimed to be close to the ancestor of both modern humans and modern chimpanzees. Small-brained, ape-like, unclear as to whether it was bipedal.
|Ardepithecus ramidus: Ancestor of australopithecines and hominids. At first dated to 4.4 million years; recently pushed back to 5.8. (Older date not universally accepted.) About 4' tall. Claims for regular bipedal gait.
|Significant climate change in Africa. Huge rainforests in eastern-central Africa begin to dry out and disappear; savannahs become widespread.
|Australopithecus afarensis. "Lucy" Story of the finding of the Lucy skeleton by Donald Johanson. Maeve Leakey's talk on recent findings on the Australopithecines.
|Australopithecus boisei (or Paranthropus boisei) fossils. Discovered by Mary Leakey. Her son, Richard Leakey, believes that stone tools found in vicinity of some of the specimens were used by this creature. Most others (as far as I can tell) think the tools belong with Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis or other creatures with more 'advanced' morphological features than any australopithecines.
|Homo habilis fossils
|Oldest stone tools (beginning of Oldowan tool period). Some scholars (Tobias; Johanson) believe they belong to Homo habilis. Others seem to think they belong to Homo rudolfensis or hominids close to erectus. A few (e.g. Leakey, cf. above) hold that the tools belonged to australopithecus robustus or Australopithecus/Paranthropus boisei because of proximity of tools and bones of these species (and long-overlapping dates of australopithecines us with 'more advanced' (meaning more human-like) hominids. But most seem to reject that australopithecines of any sort used shaped stone tools.
|Australopithecus robustus (or Paranthropus robustus) fossils
|Homo erectus. Fire-using hominid with double the brain capacity of habilis and very modern-looking proportions and features in skeleton. The finds "Java Man" and "Peking Man" were of this species. First hominid to get out of Africa; geographic spread of finds goes from Africa to China and southeast to the island of Java. Earliest dates given include 2.2mya, 2mya, 1.9mya, and 1mya. Latest dates give range from 1.6mya to 400,000 years ago.
|Oldest Acheulean-type tools found, East Central Africa. Innovation: a symmetrical bifacial cutting edge. Different tool types for different uses; hand axes, picks, cleavers. Bone and antler tools found for fine shaping of stones. Some scholars hold that they were made by Homo ergaster and the Homo erectus that lived in Africa and the middle east.
|Acheulean tools become a bit finer and more symmetrical. Teardrop shape repeated. Huge hand-axes found.
|Last austrolapithecine/paranthropus fossils found. Apparent extinction after 3m years.
|Homo antecessor fossils found in Spain. Many consider this to be the oldest direct hominid ancestor in Europe. The find is somewhat controversial. Also, some give a more recent date of 780,000 years ago.
|Fossil record becomes very poor for the next 400,000 years, especially in Africa, Europe.
|Acheulean tools spread from Africa to Europe, Near East, India. In Europe apparently used by Homo heidelbergensis. (Homo erectus in Asia continues using Oldowan tools.) Acheulean tools show consistent design and manufacture for over 1,000,000 years, with relatively small change. Suggests cultural transmission.
|Oldest Neanderthal fossils. Found in Near East, Europe, western Asia. Some date the finds as much older, as much as 400,000 years ago.
|Mousterian tool industry appears in Africa, Near East, Europe. Standardization of a few simple stages for creating each tool in a a wide range of tool shapes. Blades are sharper, points pointier, than Acheulean. Tools take longer to make (to get the blade wide and thin), but this makes it possible to resharpen, saving work in the longer term. Evidence of looking ahead? Scrapers appear to be designed for preparing hides. Points have tangs/stubs at the base apparently for tying onto a stick. The first spears. Adding a shaft to a sharp pointed stone stabilizes its flight, making it possible to kill prey by throwing across distance, instead of clubbing from a much more dangerous proximity. Some stone tools appear to be designed for shaping wood, bone, or antler.
|A new date given in 2005 for the oldest Homo sapiens fossils. These were found at the Omo site in Ethiopia in 1967. They were first dated to 130,000 years ago. This new dating depends on new geochronological dating techniques applied to the volcanic river sediments above and below the finds. The new dating is not yet universally accepted however.
|A different find of archaic sapiens, also from Africa.
|The original date of the Homo sapiens fossils from Omo site in Ethiopia, found in 1967 by Richard Leakey, called Omo I. Some paleoanthropologists prefer to stick to this date.
|195,000 or 130,000
|Whatever dating will prevail for Omo I, it had distinct morphology from Neanderthalensis. Lighter build, high-cranial skull, vertical forehead, little or no brow ridge. There was another specimen similar to Omo I but that looked more primitive, called Omo II. First thought to be older, later found to have lived within a couple hundred years of Omo I. Shows range of variation of hominids in same time period. Both Omo I and II are very similar to but not quite the same as modern Homo sapiens sapiens. Similarities suggest that Omo I was ancestral to Sapiens sapiens. This older ancestor is often called "archaic sapiens".
|Fossil record gap. Despite fossil bone remains of archaic sapiens/Omo 1, there are no cultural remains besides stone tools. Questions: Did they not have other cultural artifacts or did some kinds of artifacts just not survive such a long period? Did they have the same exact brain as the sapiens of the upper paleolithic, but just not learn to use it to its potential? Or did some evolutionary change in the brain and therefore mind happen, which resulted in a kick-start for the upper paleolithic?
|Earliest preserved artifacts with incised patterns (ochre blocks in Blomo caves); earliest representational figures: "Venus" figurine
|One band of H. sapiens sapiens leaves Africa and fans out around much of the globe, becoming ancestors of all of human populations outside of Africa.
|Homo sapiens sapiens fossils found in Europe.
|Upper Paleolithic tool industry : Africa, Asia, Europe. (Some claim a much earlier African origin. Others in general agreement with following but put earliest date at 50,000 years ago.) Proliferation of tool types, materials, processes and techniques. Diversification into regional styles, overlapping in time, suggesting something like modern cultural variation. Sharp points of stone and bone, very sharp cutting blades and scrapers, barbed harpoon tips, sewing needles, fishhooks.
|30,000 (or 20,000, or 18,000)
|last Neanderthal fossils found, in Europe. Any of these dates are amazingly late for this creature. H. sapiens sapiens occupied the same area in Europe from 50,000 years ago.
|Realistic representations of animals on cave walls. Some made with mineral pigments (cave paintings) others are incised into rock, often with use of irregularities in surface of rock to help suggest third dimension; and some use both techniques. The most sophisticated and realistic animal representations are found in Europe, for reasons unknown, as the Upper Paleolithic cultural explosion is in full swing everywhere there are humans. Simpler, schematic cave art found in all populated areas of the world from this period. Also Venus figurines become more prevalent.
|Upper Paleolithic tool industry gives way to early Neolithic -- the new stone age. Sudden large increase in tool materials and types, and in sophistication/skill of manufacture. Beginnings of specialization of tool industry: manufacture of some tools left to specialist experts. All surviving hunter-gatherer human cultures have Neolithic technology at least; although some scholars think that parts of the Australian aboriginal tool-kit (some of the stone implements) look essentially paleolithic until modern times. The historical ethnography of Australia is not that clear--was some neolithic stone tool manufacture, which might have been brought in with early migrations from the northern archipelagos of New Guinea, actually lost, and the primitive, less skill-oriented techniques re-invented? In any case, they are neolithic in other respects, leaving no true paleolithic cultures in the world.
|Beginnings of agriculture. In some parts of the world, it develops and supports large societies; spreads from these into other regions. In other places, little or no agriculture ever develops, and it appears in these areas only in the modern colonial era, brought by others who have it.
|Agriculture-based societies develop communities large enough to be called cities, with some civic intrastructure (drainage systems, public buildings).
|Pre-writing. Pictographic representations that are apparently not language-based. Early representation systems for commerce (clay tokens for counting and recording/transmitting financial information).
|Writing systems (way of recording/representing a language with marks on a surface). Writing systems are by definition tied to language. Appearance of coins as medium of exchange. Development of mathematics, astronomy, and calendrical systems (all originally in service of agriculture and keeping track of seasonal weather and flood patterns). Growth of large dominant civilizations based on agricultural wealth and consequent support of large populations. Use of writing for administration and wielding of power. Emergence of written codes of law. Devlopment of very large trade empires, also administrated through writing.
|Mass literacy in parts of the world culturally heir to large empires.
|Internet; World Wide Web