New paper links ancient drawings and the origins of language

February 21, 2018 by Peter Dizikes, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
While the world’s best-known cave art exists in France and Spain, examples of it abound throughout the world. Credit: stock image of a cave painting in South Africa

When and where did humans develop language? To find out, look deep inside caves, suggests an MIT professor.

More precisely, some specific features of art may provide clues about how our symbolic, multifaceted language capabilities evolved, according to a new paper co-authored by MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa.

A key to this idea is that cave art is often located in acoustic "hot spots," where sound echoes strongly, as some scholars have observed. Those drawings are located in deeper, harder-to-access parts of caves, indicating that acoustics was a principal reason for the placement of drawings within caves. The drawings, in turn, may represent the sounds that early humans generated in those spots.

In the new paper, this convergence of sound and drawing is what the authors call a "cross-modality information transfer," a convergence of auditory information and visual art that, the authors write, "allowed early humans to enhance their ability to convey symbolic thinking." The combination of sounds and images is one of the things that characterizes human language today, along with its symbolic aspect and its ability to generate infinite new sentences.

"Cave art was part of the package deal in terms of how homo sapiens came to have this very high-level cognitive processing," says Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics and the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT. "You have this very concrete cognitive process that converts an acoustic signal into some mental representation and externalizes it as a visual."

Cave artists were thus not just early-day Monets, drawing impressions of the outdoors at their leisure. Rather, they may have been engaged in a process of communication.

"I think it's very clear that these artists were talking to one another," Miyagawa says. "It's a communal effort."

The paper, "Cross-modality information transfer: A hypothesis about the relationship among , symbolic thinking, and the emergence of language," is being published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The authors are Miyagawa; Cora Lesure, a Ph.D. student in MIT's Department of Linguistics; and Vitor A. Nobrega, a Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil.

Re-enactments and rituals?

The advent of language in human history is unclear. Our species is estimated to be about 200,000 years old. Human language is often considered to be at least 100,000 years old.

"It's very difficult to try to understand how human language itself appeared in evolution," Miyagawa says, noting that "we don't know 99.9999 percent of what was going on back then." However, he adds, "There's this idea that language doesn't fossilize, and it's true, but maybe in these artifacts [cave drawings], we can see some of the beginnings of homo sapiens as symbolic beings."

While the world's best-known cave art exists in France and Spain, examples of it abound throughout the world. One form of cave art suggestive of symbolic thinking—geometric engravings on pieces of ochre, from the Blombos Cave in southern Africa—has been estimated to be at least 70,000 years old. Such symbolic art indicates a cognitive capacity that humans took with them to the rest of the world.

"Cave art is everywhere," Miyagawa says. "Every major continent inhabited by homo sapiens has cave art. … You find it in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, everywhere, just like human language." In recent years, for instance, scholars have catalogued Indonesian cave art they believe to be roughly 40,000 years old, older than the best-known examples of European cave art.

But what exactly was going on in caves where people made noise and rendered things on walls? Some scholars have suggested that acoustic "hot spots" in caves were used to make noises that replicate hoofbeats, for instance; some 90 percent of cave drawings involve hoofed animals. These drawings could represent stories or the accumulation of knowledge, or they could have been part of rituals.

In any of these scenarios, Miyagawa suggests, cave art displays properties of language in that "you have action, objects, and modification." This parallels some of the universal features of human language—verbs, nouns, and adjectives—and Miyagawa suggests that "acoustically based cave art must have had a hand in forming our cognitive symbolic mind."

Future research: More decoding needed

To be sure, the ideas proposed by Miyagawa, Lesure, and Nobrega merely outline a working hypothesis, which is intended to spur additional thinking about language's origins and point toward new research questions.

Regarding the cave art itself, that could mean further scrutiny of the syntax of the visual representations, as it were. "We've got to look at the content" more thoroughly, says Miyagawa. In his view, as a linguist who has looked at images of the famous Lascaux cave art from France, "you see a lot of language in it." But it remains an open question how much a re-interpretation of cave art images would yield in linguistics terms.

The long-term timeline of cave art is also subject to re-evaluation on the basis of any future discoveries. If cave art is implicated in the development of , finding and properly dating the oldest known such drawings would help us place the orgins of in human history—which may have happened fairly early on in our development.

"What we need is for someone to go and find in Africa cave art that is 120,000 years old," Miyagawa quips.

At a minimum, a further consideration of as part of our cognitive development may reduce our tendency to regard art in terms of our own experience, in which it probably plays a more strictly decorative role for more people.

"If this is on the right track, it's quite possible that … cross-modality transfer helped develop a symbolic mind," Miyagawa says. In that case, he adds, "art is not just something that is marginal to our culture, but central to the formation of our cognitive abilities."

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AllStBob
not rated yet Feb 21, 2018
Look for half coconut shells.
Nonlin_org
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 21, 2018
What "evolution"?

Here's the whole article: cave art is often located in acoustic "hot spots"

The rest is pure speculation.
adave
not rated yet Feb 22, 2018
We have two minds. One expresses technology as monotone. The other is like animal calls expressing emotion (singing). Symbolic sentences show up in geometric decorations on fabric and pottery. Cave art was done outside the cave. Inside the cave, art was a hunters quiet mind painting what they saw on the rock in one try. Acoustic responses are hard wired in the mind. Clear your throat and someone nearby will too if you are both using the quiet mind that walks paths. We are most adept at sign language as typing is often over a hundred words a minute. That skill came from evolution. Cave art is without human form because we are hidden by instinct. Unlike primates that live in trees or vertical terrain we slip through savanna and forrest. We are camouflaged. Even today we wear clothing to satisfy the instinct to hide as a group. Didgeridoo music cause animals to look. Pentatonic bone flutes can be used to hunt. Both objects are over 35K years old. Cave pictographic language is unknown.
adave
not rated yet Feb 22, 2018
A good read is "Origins Revisited" by Leakey. Can you imagine a recent talkative modern inventive man with ancient man? The new guy stands up and shouts "Deer"!!!!!!!!! Using a one word noun, adjective and verb, lunch and everyone else take off running? Picture strip sentences are common in modern times showing mental organization. Cave art shows the feelings and mind of the artist participants. Can you imagine a didgeridoo in one of those caves?
moranity
not rated yet Feb 22, 2018
theres alot of rock painting out there as old as these cave paintings, so the connection between deep caves and art doesnt hold
rhugh1066
not rated yet Feb 22, 2018
I call bs. Primates have communicated since they've existed and we've just extended and refined that natural function. Art has nothing to do with the matter. Physorg seems increasingly laden with hogwash articles of this sort. Pity.
michael_frishberg
not rated yet Feb 22, 2018
"acoustically based cave art must have had a hand in forming our cognitive symbolic mind"
Wrong. Acoustically based singing and responsive chanting leading to dancing and trancing in every culture on Earth doesn't need a cave.

However, if you were going to scare the pants off of 'initiates' no where better than a dark echoey cave.

And, as usual, scholars neglect to mention Sign Language, which can be learned earlier than spoken language, and has been shown to have every nuance of spoken language.
Sign Language was the lingua franca of the Native Plains Indians in the Continental US, shared by tribes that SPOKE 32+ different languages.
So, the evolution of vocal cords seems a worthy pursuit, but language is a whole nuther thingy.
Hunters can use hand gestures and silence, sign language had to evolve first.
VCRAGAIN
not rated yet Feb 25, 2018
Seems obvious that sign language would have been used - gesticulating & pointing to make yourself understood - but sounds would have been used as well since we are naturally noisy animals, as chimps do too - it would just have naturally evolved into ever more complex grunting & gestures until there were understood noises that became 'language' ! I do not see any issue with needing to have some other path to the creation of a language - it IS just an understood series of sounds after all, no longer needing actual physical gestures as well in most cases, altho we do throw those in too sometimes !!!

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