The first verbal conversations likely occurred between 2.5 and 1.8 million years ago and were about tool-making, a new study suggests.
The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, presents compelling evidence that stone tool-making helped to drive the evolution of language and teaching among prehistoric human ancestors in the African savanna. A possible first sentence might have been, “Tool bad.”
“We suggest that the use of tools drove the evolution of language, and it seems likely that ‘words’ for things other than current emotional states would have been very useful for learning to knap,” lead author Thomas Morgan told Discovery News.
“The use of sounds or gestures for non-emotional concepts such as ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘here,’ ‘there,’ ‘good’ and ‘bad’ would likely have been really useful,” added Morgan, who is a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.
Morgan, University of Liverpool archaeologist Natalie Uomini and their team conducted a series of experiments in teaching contemporary humans the art of “Oldowan stone knapping.” Oldowan refers to the oldest known stone cutting tools, which were likely made by Homo habilis (aka “The Handy Man”) and possibly also Homo rudolfensis, Australopithecus garhi and Paranthropus boisei.
The earliest known Oldowan tools date to 2.5 million years ago. They consist of butchering “flakes” created by hammering a hard rock against certain volcanic or glassy rocks, like basalt or flint. The tools remained largely unchanged until 1.8 million years ago, when more sophisticated Acheulean hand-axes and cleavers marked the next generation of stone tool tech.
In testing five different ways to convey Oldowan stone-knapping skills to more than 180 college students, the researchers found that the demonstration using spoken communication, versus imitation, non-verbal presentation or gestures, yielded the highest volume and quality of flakes in the shortest amount of time and with the least waste.