Tag Archives: origins of language

+ Language Began in Africa… A Theory

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Nicholas Wade has written in the NY Times about the research of  Quentin D. Anderson, which indicates that southern Africa was the place where modern human language originated.

These findings fit with evidence from fossil skulls and DNA that modern humans did originate in Africa.  Although it doesn’t prove that language originated only once (linguists have found this controversial), it does strongly imply it.

To detect an ancient signal in language is surprising because words change rapidly.  Many linguists feel that because of the speed with which words change, language can’t be traced very far back in time.

So far, the oldest language tree constructed — the Indo-European family tree — goes back 9,000 years at most.

Atkinson is a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.  He has shattered the 9,000 year time barrier by looking not at words, but at phonemes.

Not Words — Phonemes

Phonemes are the simplest elements of any language: our single consonant, vowel and tonal utterances.  For example, there are three phonemes in the word “cat:” /c/ — /a/ — /t/.

Dr. Atkinson is an expert at applying mathematical methods to linguistics.  He has found a simple but striking pattern in around 500 language throughout the world: he has observed that

a language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it.

Some click-languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes.  English has 45.  Hawaii — toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa — has only thirteen.

Interestingly, this pattern of distance-related decreasing diversity is similar to the well-established decrease in genetic diversity that appear in populations the farther they are from Africa.

This certainly could imply that the origin of modern language is in the region of southwestern Africa.

Dr. Atkinson published his article on April 14, 2011 in the journal Science.

Modern humans dispersed from Africa approximately 50,000 years ago, so language is thought to be about that age.  But some linguists even push the age of language back to 100,000 years.

Atkinson seems to be picking up a distant echo from this ancient beginning.

sole source: Nicholas Wade’s article in the New York Times on april 15, 2011.  For the article, visit http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/science/15language.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=Nicholas%20Wade&st=cse

tutoring in columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


+ Horses May Have Been Domesticated 1000 Years Earlier

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The journey to the Kentucky Derby may have  started on the Kazakh steppes around 3500 BC, a millennium earlier than previously thought.

These pastoral people, the Botai, were probably the first to domesticate, bridle and perhaps ride horses, according to a NY Times article by John Noble Wilford.  

The Botai did not just herd horses for meat; the scientists found bit-wear marks on the horses’ teeth — a clear sign that they were being ridden.  And they found evidence from pottery fragments that horses were being milked.

Archeologists say the discovery may revise thinking about the development of some pre-agricultural Eurasian societies. 

It may also put an earlier date to the dispersal of these people into Europe and elsewhere.  That migratory dispersal is believed to have been associated with horse domestication, and with the spread of Indo-European languages. 

So it’s being suggested that on the first Saturday in May koumiss, the fermented mare’s milk favored by horsemen in Central Asia, might be more appropriate than mint juleps.

The lead author of the article in the journal Science is Alan K Outram, of the University of Exeter in England. 

The scientists say they uncovered ample horse bones and artifacts from which they derived “three independent lines of evidence demonstrating domestication” of horses by the semi-sedentary Botai culture.   The Botai people occupied sites in northern Kazakhstan for six centuries, beginning around 3600 BCE.

Researchers analyzed the shape and size of the skeletons from four sites; they compared them with bones of wild horses in the region from the same time, with domestic horses from centuries later in the Bronze Age, and with Mongolian domestic horses.

The Botai animals were “appreciably more slender” than robust wild horses and more similar to domestic horses.

In an interview, Dr Outram said it is not clear from the research if the breeding of the tamed Botai horses had by then led to the origin of a genetically distinct new species.

But their physical attributes were strikingly different, and this made the animals more useful to the people as meat, as sources of milk and as beasts of burden and locomotion.

The second pieces of evidence were marks on the horses’ teeth and damage to skeletal tissue in the mouths.  Researchers say this was caused by the wearing of mouthpieces, bits, inserted for harnessing with a bridle or a similar restraint to control the animals.

Other archeological research has detected similar traces of bit wear, but it has been disputed as support for domestication.  According to Dr Outram, the damage to the Botai horses’ teeth and jawbones could have been caused only by bit wear.

The third strand of evidence was yielded by Botai pottery, say the researchers. 

Residues of carcass fat and fatty acids were embedded in the clay pots, residues which “very likely” came from mares’ milk.  

This “confirms that at least some of the mares of Botai were domesticated,” the researchers conclude.

Archeologists have long been puzzled as to just where and when domestication of horses first occurred.  Most investigations have concentrated on the steppes of Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan, areas where wild horses were abundant for thousands of years.  Burials in these areas often included the skeletons of prized stallions and early chariots.

David W Anthony, an archeologist at Hartwick College in Oneonta NY, has written an authoritative book, “The Horse, the Wheel and Languages” (2007).  He said that some of the best evidence puts the beginning of horse domestication in the region around 2500 BCE.  This new research places that beginning a thousand years earlier.

The beginning of the horse-human relationship, says Dr Outram, had “immense social and economic significance, advancing communications, transport, food production and warfare.” 

In a Times editorial, we are reminded that domestication isn’t just the conquering of one species by another.  It’s the willing collaboration between two species, a sharing of benefits.

Something in the equine nature, suggest the Times’s editors, allowed it to partner with humans, just as something in the nature of dogs also allows for such a partnership.  What if horses had refused our overtures?  Would that have retarded the spread and integration of language, culture and civilization?

Perhaps without domesticated horses, we could not have begun to be who we are today.

sole source: John Noble Wilford’s NY Times article on 3/6/09, as well as an editorial a few days later.  www.nytimes.com

tutoring in columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021  or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com