IV. Limitations on reconstruction of the history of language
(4) Cultural Status Evidence for Language
Do the cultural remains of prehistoric man furnish clues for the dating of the development of language? If one could be certain that language is the necessary concomitant of either tool-making, or social organization, or cultural complexity, one could make fairly precise statements about the time of the birth of language. Unfortunately, such certainty does not exist for the first two phenomena and even the third gives but vague indications.
The use of objects as instrumentalities for behaviors is not resereved to man among the primate order (Miyadi, 1964; Goodall, 1963; Birch, 1945; W. Köhler, 1927). Apparently a primitive capacity for the use of tools is common to several primate species and is therefore not necessarily tied to the human form of communication. However, even the earlist forms of homo must heave made a very different and much more extensive use of tools than any subhuman primate today. Miller (1964) has proposed that the use of tools and the use of language demand very similar, biologicaly given capacidies. I consider this to be a fruitful way of looking at language but, at the same time, it must be stressed that it does not compel us to assume simultaneous emergence of the two skills. One may have been present before the other and there is no way to decide which might have had the lead. Nor does the nature of the tools or the state of primtivity allow us to pospulate concomitant levels of primitivity for a form of communication. (Miller suggested no such correlation.)
Degree of social organization must be related to efficiency of intraspecies communication. This is almost a truism. But the communication may, and does, take on an infinite variety of forms. Our speculations about the beginnings of language are seriously handicapped by two unknown factor. First, we can only make the vaguest of assumptions about the social structure and organization of prehistoric men and second, their forms of communication might have been highly developed but very different in nature and principle from our present form. Therefore, Dart’s (1959) postulate that evidence of hunting and fishing technology makes the possession of language a reasonable assumption can not be accepted uncritically. Perhapes a certain activity calls for good communication, but whether this was a direct, primitive antecedent of what we now call language is uncertain.
The most difficult evaluation of evidence for the existence of language is cultural complexity. At one time our phylogenetic ancestors must have had a truly primitive form of culture. On the other hand, the neolithic cultures of fifty thousand yeas ago may not have been any less complex than the most primitive living cultures today, for example, say in Central Brazil or
Today we may study cultures that are essentially neolithic in their state of development, as well as cultures advanced enough to split the atom and explore interplanetary space. Surprisingly, the natural languages spoken throughout this range of cultures appear to be based on similar principles. It is an empirical fact that today neither the tools commonly occurring in a given culture nor the social structure associated with that culture can give us clues about the complexity of structure of the language now spoken by the individuals of that culture. Natural languages cannot be ordered in terms of complexity. A complex task should be more difficult to learn than a simple one end therefore take more time and effort. But all natural languages are learned with the same ease by children of a certain age, which seems to confirm the “equal complexity” hypothesis.
It is reasonable to assume (though not absolutely necessary) that Cro-Magnon man, whose material culture might not have been too far removed from the most primitive present-day cultures, and who had all the physical characteristics of modern man, was in possession of language as we know it today. There is nothing that requires us to think of his language as substantially more primitive than ours, or to postulate any “uk-uk-theory.”* It is likely that Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men were speaking creatures. We have no means of decifing whether earlier races has a form of communication that was in any way similar to that of Cro-Magnon. Attempts at dating the origin of modern types of language development seem unwarranted.