ABSTRACT

Despite the importance of the evolution of bipedalism, reduced jaw line, fore limb adaptations and other broad morphological characteristics which establish homo sapiens as a distinct primate species, by far the most important evolutionary outcome is the manifestation of symbolic reasoning. That is, the facility to reason abstractly in terms of past and future events and not merely have cognition of the present. This ability to reason symbolically has also given rise to spoken languages as a means of communication. Although other species use vocal means of communication, only humankind has grammatically structured languages. By way of the use of language, humankind has established cultures comprising vast accumulations of knowledge, manufacturing skills and techniques, art and music. No other species has attained the quality of communication through succeeding generations that humankind has through the existence of complex languages. Although information about exploiting a habitat can be passed on by social animals such as bees, ants and termites, this takes place almost solely by the genetic inheritance of behavioural traits. And even social species much closer to humankind, such as chimpanzees, are limited in their ability to preserve skills and knowledge from one generation to the next. Although learning a repertoire of behaviours which assist survival clearly play a part in chimpanzee maturation processes, these are extremely limited in terms of innovation from one generation to another. Humankind, it would seem, is unique in being able to gain abstract understanding of the external world and communicate such knowledge accurately and reliably to others. This, then, is the great mystery of humankind, although it is relatively easy to speculate on why humankind stood up on two legs and stayed that way, or why our forelimbs adapted such that the hand became able to grasp and manipulate objects with greater dexterity than other species, it is less easy to discern the extraordinary process through which the ability to compose symphony music come into being? Clearly there are collective moments in this process as, unlike other human adaptations, language is only meaningful if it is shared. Being able to pick up a stone and fashion a tool may be of use to a single ancestor, but being able to communicate complex ideas 28would be purposeless unless it was experienced collectively. Hence a focus on collective enterprises must be at the centre of any reflection on or investigation into the beginnings of symbolic thought and the use of language. In addressing these issues it will be necessary to consider what it was about early human behaviour which laid the ground for the emergence of language.