Introduction to Part III: The prehistory of language: when and why did language evolve?

Kathleen R. Gibson and Maggie Tallerman

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Introduction to Part III: The prehistory of language: when and why did language evolve?

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This article focuses on the evolution of language over the years. The evidence for primate and human evolution has derived primarily from comparative anatomy and fossil records, although since the 1960s, molecular and biochemical evidences have increasingly been used to delineate phylogenetic relationships among living species and diverse human populations. One of the current research frontiers involves analyses of the DNA of Neanderthals and other fossils. These molecular findings are reviewed by Cann who reports that mitochondrial DNA and the fossil record roughly agree that the phylogenetic split between hominins and panins. It is the earliest possible date for the emergence of protolanguage. Most interpretations of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA suggest that Neanderthal and modern human lineages split somewhere between 270 and 480 thousand years ago (kya), and all modern humans shared a common maternal ancestor in Africa approximately 200 kya. Some mitochondrial DNA data not reviewed by Cann indicates a genetic split between the South African Khoisan peoples and other Africans sometime earlier than 90 kya. The recent nuclear DNA analyses strongly indicate that genetic interchange did occur between modern humans and Neanderthal populations, either directly or indirectly, and, thus, appear to negate completely the strongest versions of the Out-of-Africa model.

Keywords: phylogenetic; human evolution; Neanderthals; fossils; protolanguage

Article.  4772 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution ; Cognitive Linguistics

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