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Prelinguistic evolution in early hominins: Whence motherese?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 February 2005

Dean Falk*
Department of Anthropology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL32306-7772


In order to formulate hypotheses about the evolutionary underpinnings that preceded the first glimmerings of language, mother-infant gestural and vocal interactions are compared in chimpanzees and humans and used to model those of early hominins. These data, along with paleoanthropological evidence, suggest that prelinguistic vocal substrates for protolanguage that had prosodic features similar to contemporary motherese evolved as the trend for enlarging brains in late australopithecines/early Homo progressively increased the difficulty of parturition, thus causing a selective shift toward females that gave birth to relatively undeveloped neonates. It is hypothesized that hominin mothers adopted new foraging strategies that entailed maternal silencing, reassuring, and controlling of the behaviors of physically removed infants (i.e., that shared human babies' inability to cling to their mothers' bodies). As mothers increasingly used prosodic and gestural markings to encourage juveniles to behave and to follow, the meanings of certain utterances (words) became conventionalized. This hypothesis is based on the premises that hominin mothers that attended vigilantly to infants were strongly selected for, and that such mothers had genetically based potentials for consciously modifying vocalizations and gestures to control infants, both of which receive support from the literature.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2004

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1. Although human fathers engage in motherese (or parentese), chimpanzee fathers are unrecognized in the wild and adult males interact relatively little with infants. The parental focus of the present analysis is therefore on females.

2. At least one familiar western lullaby reifies the concept of lullabies as substitutes for physical rocking. Interestingly, it also refers to infants falling from trees (or off traveling mothers?). One might therefore suggest (somewhat fancifully) that this lullaby soothes a primordial fear retained from the time when hominin mothers still slept with infants in tree nests (cradles of boughs), as chimpanzee mothers do. Primary stresses are capitalized and underlined; secondary stresses are underlined (modified slightly from Trainor et al. 1997, p. 388):

ROCK-a- // bye / ba- // by / ON the // tree / top /// WHEN the // wind / blows // the / CRA- / dle / will / rock /// WHEN the // bough / breaks // the CRA- / dle /will / fall /// And /// DOWN / will / come / Ba- // by / CRA- / dle / and / all ///

3. Another invention of female Japanese macaques that applies to a natural (rather than provisioned) food was not propagated in this way. Nakamichi et al. (1998) report that 11 free-ranging adult females pulled grass roots from the ground, carried them to a river, and washed them (sometimes on flat stones), but that this behavior did not propagate to most of the group. Six of the animals were from one matriline, and two others were a mother and her adult daughter. The authors speculate that root-washing did not spread widely for several reasons: Roots are eaten only during a brief period of the year; carrying is not common among macaques in natural environments; and pulling long roots from the ground would have been difficult for juveniles. One might therefore conclude that, to become conventionalized, an invented behavior must be possible during much of the year, feasible for juveniles as well as adults, and utilize anatomical substrates that are widely available.