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The Origins of Speech

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Spoken language is one of the defining human characteristics — the crucial accomplishment which makes us human and separates us from other species. Naturally enough, the origins of this accomplishment — which must lie somewhere back in the Palaeolithic — have been the subject of lively and often heated debate, not least since speech leaves no direct material residues. Many people have sought to resolve the question by careful analysis of the material remains of early hominids. But do patterns of tool-making or evidence of sophisticated subsistence strategies really provide an adequate base from which to deduce the presence of linguistic ability? Furthermore, is language inextricably bound up with the ability to vocalize and to speak? Are studies of the vocal tract of Neanderthals or Homo erectus really relevant to the question of language origins?

The wide diversity of view on the antiquity of human spoken language is very clear from the brief contributions which make up this feature. On the one hand is the evidence for the presence of Broca's and Wernicke's areas in the brain of Homo habilis around 2 million years ago. Does this provide grounds for believing that Homo habilis could speak? Did the use of tools as icons by Homo erectus play a key role in the development of human spoken language? Or should we instead go along with the growing consensus — supported by many linguists —that spoken language is a late addition to the range of human abilities, originating along with fully modern humans only within the last 200,000 years? And dare we go even further, and nominate Africa as the locus of language origin?

The time may come when we are able to specify not only when human spoken language first developed, but also where. For the present, however, the debate shows no sign of imminent resolution. In the pages which follow, we bring together the views of archaeologists from a number of different backgrounds; but we begin with a linguist's perspective, and seven propositions to set the scene for the archaeological enquiry.

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