At heart, human beings are social animals. We seek each other out and live together with others in groups – in a family, in a village or in a town, and in a broader sense in a social community.
Living in any kind of community requires communication with other people. Communication is an incredibly broad concept and comprises all the many different ways in which information is transmitted from one person to another. Think, for instance, about advertising posters at the supermarket, telling you about the unmissable special offers of the day; or a different example, the rude sign made by another road user to let you know that he’s not impressed with your driving! But above all, communication means something that we all do a lot of – talking.
Children learn to talk at a very early age, at first from their parents. Later they develop the skill further at school or through contact with others. It has been this way for centuries. But when did it start? Who was the first person to speak? It is far, far easier to ask this question than to answer it, because the answer lies so far back in the past that there is no evidence to help us. Some academics believe that language developed in parallel with the emergence of modern man. Others are of the opinion that earlier hominids could talk.
This is a difficult question. So difficult in fact that in the middle of the 19th century the Paris Society of Linguistics banned any further discussion of the subject (Stam 1976). Fortunately, academics were not deterred and they continued to develop new ways of pursuing the question.
One of these ways was to study the fossil remains of our ancestors, and in particular their vocal tract, i.e. the way in which humans produce sounds. In order to talk intelligibly, man must be physically able to produce the sounds which are necessary for language – vowels and consonants.
The hyoid bone
A large part of the vocal tract, including the mouth, tongue and vocal chords, is made of soft material which quickly decays. But one part that is found as a fossil is the hyoid bone, also known as the lingual bone or tongue bone. This is a small horseshoe-shaped bone which sits in the neck above the larynx (or voicebox). By comparing fossilised hyoid bones with those of modern man and of anthropoids, tentative conclusions can be drawn about the power of speech in the different types.
In anthropoids the hyoid bone differs from that of modern man and has a bulge at the front with an opening facing downwards. Anthropoids have an air sac in their throats (similar to the inflatable membrane found in frogs and birds) which allows them to utter an impressive howl. And the bulge on the hyoid bone is important in keeping open the passage between the sac and the larynx (Boer, 2012).
With the help of computer models Bart de Boer, a scientist researching the evolution of language, has established how it would sound if man had that kind of air sac. His research suggests that certain vowels become unintelligible (Boer, 2012). By studying the fossilised hyoid bones, it is possible to estimate whether or not our ancestors had air sacs and therefore whether or not they could speak.
One of the fossil hyoid bones which have been discovered comes from Australopithecus, a distant ancestor of man, approximately 3.3 million years old. The other fossils come from Neanderthals and vary in age from 60,000 to 500,000 years old (Boer, 2012). From the shape of the fossils of the Neanderthals it can be deduced that they had no air sacs and therefore were probably able to speak. The hyoid bone from Australopithecus is much closer to that of a chimpanzee. He probably had an air sac and therefore would have sounded more like an ape than a man (Boer, 2012).
This brings us a small step closer to the answer to the question: which of our ancestors was the first to speak? Finding more hyoid bones could provide us with more answers.
Boer, B. de (2012). Hoe sprak de oermens? In ‘Alles wat je altijd al had willen weten over taal. De taalcanon.’
Stam, J.H. (1976). ‘Inquiries into the origins of language.’