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← How language began | Dan Everett | TEDxSanFrancisco

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  1. So we're here in the center of technology,
  2. and I just wanted to ask
    a simple question.
  3. What was the greatest
    technological discovery ever made,
  4. the basis for all subsequent technology,
  5. and when was it made?
  6. The greatest technological breakthrough
    of human beings is language,
  7. invented 2 million years ago
  8. in the first and greatest information age
  9. by Homo erectus, mom and dad.
  10. (Laughter)
  11. Homo erectus was one
    of the most successful creatures
  12. to ever walk the Earth.
  13. They lived on this planet
    for nearly 2 million years.
  14. We have so far lived on this planet
  15. for a certain 200,000,
    perhaps as many as 500,000.
  16. So we haven't lived a quarter of the time
    that Homo erectus lived on this planet.
  17. Homo erectus was a marvelous creature.
  18. It had the greatest brain
    the world had ever seen,
  19. maybe the universe had ever seen.
  20. The range of size of the Homo erectus
    brain was about 950 cc,
  21. 75% of the size of an adult
    Homo sapiens male
  22. and roughly in the range
    of many Homo sapiens females -
  23. and that proves to us
    that size doesn't matter.
  24. (Laughter)
  25. The Homo erectus brain and body
    were both phenomenal.
  26. That was the first body -
  27. Homo erectus stood
    about as tall as we do.
  28. They weighted probably around 150 pounds
  29. and they were the first creatures
    in the history of the universe
  30. capable of persistent hunting.
  31. Our bipedal gait enables us
    to run long distances
  32. and cool down more efficiently
    than quadrupeds.
  33. So, Homo erectus was actually
    able to chase down its prey
  34. until the prey either
    died of heat exhaustion,
  35. or Homo erectus beat it to death
    with a stone axe or a club.
  36. Homo erectus was a marvelous creature.
  37. And they had many accomplishments.
  38. Homo erectus made a variety of tools,
    starting with the Olduwan tools.
  39. And they kept these tools,
    and they transported these tools,
  40. and they improved these tools,
  41. so that they had an upgrade:
    Acheulean tools.
  42. And they upgraded this to Levallois tools.
  43. And each tool was better
    than the one before.
  44. But they weren't limited to stone tools.
  45. Homo erectus also made spears,
  46. wooden tools that we have found,
    hundreds-of-thousands-year-old spears.
  47. And they made two kinds of spears.
  48. They made spears for throwing
    and spears for thrusting.
  49. What does a spear for thrusting mean?
  50. It means you're a 5 foot 8 to 6 foot 1
    Homo erectus male, 150 pounds,
  51. and you run up and stick
    that spear into a mastodon.
  52. These were fierce creatures,
    these were brave creatures,
  53. and they were extremely
    intelligent creatures.
  54. So tools were one
    of the great accomplishments
  55. that lets us know what kind of brain
    they were developing.
  56. They also had representations of reality.
  57. This is a 250,000 year-old
  58. partially naturally-formed and
    partially artificially-formed by humans,
  59. by Homo erectus, Venus.
  60. It's called the Venus of Berekhat Ram,
  61. and there's some evidence
    that it was dyed red in certain parts.
  62. A shell found on the island of Java
  63. with engravings on the shell
    by Homo erectus.
  64. Homo erectus wasn't simply a toolmaker.
  65. They were boat makers.
  66. They traveled the oceans
    2 million years ago.
  67. How do we know this?
  68. Well, the first island that we find
    evidence of Homo erectus
  69. is the island of Flores in Indonesia,
  70. which would have been about
    a 24-mile boat trip, visible from land,
  71. about the size of the English Channel,
  72. except that Flores was, then and now,
  73. surrounded by the most treacherous
    and strongest ocean currents in the world.
  74. They couldn't have swum to Flores.
  75. They got there by boat.
  76. This is actually the island of Flores,
    and, it doesn't, you know -
  77. I don't think Homo erectus
    looked quite like that, but ...
  78. (Laughter)
  79. Archaeologists have
    actually tried to simulate
  80. the voyages of Homo Erectus
    by making rafts
  81. similar to the kinds of rafts
    that Homo erectus would have made.
  82. We know because of the amount of islands
    that we find colonies of Homo erectus
  83. that their getting to these islands
    was more than coincidence.
  84. We know by the size of the colonies
    they must have had there
  85. that multiple individuals
    had to arrive about the same time
  86. to start these colonies,
  87. and we know therefore
    that they had to plan.
  88. So one was Flores.
  89. Another was Socotra, then and now,
  90. 150 miles into the ocean
    from the nearest land,
  91. where we find Homo erectus colonies.
  92. That requires imagination,
  93. that sailing to something in exploration,
  94. and Homo erectus seems to do this.
  95. There's also evidence
    that Homo erectus had colonies on Crete.
  96. So Homo erectus was a seafarer,
  97. Homo erectus was a toolmaker,
  98. Homo erectus was
    a very intelligent person,
  99. but they did more than this.
  100. Homo erectus also
    traveled the world by land.
  101. Homo erectus evolved
    1.9 million years ago.
  102. By 1.7 million years ago,
    which is not very long,
  103. they were already in Beijing,
  104. they were in Indonesia,
  105. they were in the Middle East,
  106. they were in Europe.
  107. Homo erectus traveled -
  108. I won't be surprised when
    the newspaper finally announces
  109. that we have evidence
    of Homo erectus in California
  110. because if they could walk to Beijing
    in a short period of time,
  111. it was just a little hop,
    skip, and a jump
  112. up across the Bering Strait
    down into the New World.
  113. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't.
  114. But their abilities show that they
    were capable of a tremendous amount.
  115. So now, it's not all good news,
    there were some deficiencies.
  116. Homo erectus had the vocal
    apparatus of a gorilla.
  117. They couldn't have made
    all the sounds that we make.
  118. They would have had a range of sounds
    more like what a gorilla could make.
  119. Is that a big deal when it comes
    to language? Well, no, it isn't.
  120. There are many languages today
    that have less than twelve sounds,
  121. here's one:
  122. (Speaking in Pirahã)
  123. That's one of the languages I've worked on
    in the Amazon over the past 40 years,
  124. Pirahã, and it only has ten sounds
    if you're a woman
  125. and eleven sounds if you're a man.
  126. And with eleven sounds, you can produce
    a fully functioning human language.
  127. So was erectus capable of eleven sounds?
  128. Well, they didn't even need
    to be capable of eleven sounds.
  129. You can type anything you can communicate
    in English into your computer.
  130. You can type it in Microsoft Word
    or whatever program that you use,
  131. and when you do that,
    how many letters does a computer use?
  132. Well ultimately, a computer only uses
    two letters, two sounds: 0 and 1,
  133. and with those sounds,
    you can communicate anything.
  134. So erectus, theoretically,
  135. only needed to be able to make
    two sounds to communicate.
  136. Our ancestors were the first
    and only talking gorillas,
  137. with the anatomy that they had.
  138. Their brains not only were smaller,
  139. they were somewhat slower
    than ours by the evidence,
  140. their childhood development
    was faster than ours,
  141. which is a disadvantage cognitively
  142. because our children have
    more time to develop -
  143. I think it's about 30 years now -
  144. (Laughter)
  145. and they are able to put into place
    all sorts of cognitive mechanisms.
  146. When I tell this joke in college,
    nobody laughs, but ...
  147. (Laughter)
  148. But we know.
  149. So Homo erectus had
    advantages and disadvantages,
  150. but the most important thing
    is that none of the disadvantages
  151. would've kept it from language
    and the accomplishments we see.
  152. Right now, scientists are excavating
    a Homo erectus village,
  153. about 750,000 years old,
  154. in Gesher Benot Ya'aqov
    in modern-day Israel.
  155. And we find that this village
    is organized hierarchically.
  156. There's a section of the village
    for processing animal products,
  157. a section of the village
    for processing plant products,
  158. another section of the village
    where we find evidence of the habitation.
  159. So, they not only built villages,
    they built them in a structured manner.
  160. So they were capable
    of hierarchical thought,
  161. they were capable of planning,
    they were capable of imagination.
  162. What makes language?
  163. What was lacking for them
    to have language?
  164. A language is just,
    in essence, two things:
  165. symbols and grammar.
  166. And how many symbols do you need,
    and how much grammar do you need?
  167. What's a symbol, first of all?
  168. Charles Sanders Peirce,
  169. a philosopher from the United States
    who lived over a hundred years ago,
  170. defined three kinds of signs:
  171. Indexes, which are signs
  172. that are physically connected
    to what they represent.
  173. So, you go outside, you smell smoke,
    you know there's a fire.
  174. Smoke is an index of fire.
  175. You see a footprint, that's an index.
  176. And the next sign -
  177. So, all animals need signs.
  178. Our five senses evolved for us
    to be able to read indexes.
  179. Without indexes
    and the ability to read them,
  180. we can't function in the world.
  181. The next kind of sign is an icon -
  182. there's no physical connection,
    but there is a physical resemblance.
  183. The figure of Berekhat Ram, the Venus,
    that I showed earlier, that is an icon.
  184. The Mona Lisa is an icon.
  185. The cross in Christianity started off
    as an icon and has become a symbol.
  186. So you get this.
  187. So, what is a symbol then?
  188. The symbol is conventionally
  189. a sign that is conventionally
    or culturally connected to its meaning.
  190. So, take the number four: f-o-u-r,
    or hold up my fingers "four."
  191. That means what?
  192. It means a cardinality of four,
    we have to keep talking in English,
  193. but four is a culturally-determined form
  194. and a culturally-determined meaning.
  195. Not all languages have mathematics.
  196. Piraha, for example,
    doesn't have even the number one.
  197. There are no mathematical concepts
    in that language whatsoever.
  198. So math is a cultural discovery,
  199. if not a cultural construct,
  200. and not everyone has math in that sense.
  201. So the symbols for math
    are culturally determined.
  202. Symbols are culturally determined.
  203. The next thing we need
    to have a language -
  204. and here's a fascinating fact -
  205. When Peirce said that indexes come first,
    or more simple, and then icons,
  206. and then symbols,
  207. he inadvertently, indirectly predicted
    exactly what we find
  208. in the archaeological record.
  209. So indexes all creatures have.
  210. Those are 5 billion years old
    or however long life's been on Earth,
  211. closer to 4 billion.
  212. But, when did the first icon,
  213. the first image,
  214. appear in the archaeological record?
  215. Well, we have to go back 3 million years,
  216. which is not that far back,
  217. to Australopithecus africanus.
  218. And we find in a cave of Australopithecus,
  219. the Makapansgat cave
    of Australopithecus in South Africa,
  220. a small, little two-inch by three-inch
    stone called the Makapansgat pebble
  221. or the Makapansgat manuport
    because it was carried to the cave,
  222. and some Australopithecus recognized
    on this little stone a human face.
  223. It looks like the original
    smiley face T-shirt.
  224. And Australopithecus
    was fascinated by this.
  225. We know that because they
    carried it from miles away
  226. and took it to their cave
    and kept it there.
  227. Now, it's possible it was a coincidence,
  228. maybe they got
    it stuck between their toes.
  229. But two inches by three inches
  230. is a bit big for even
    Australopithecus toes.
  231. So they seem to have carried it there
    because of what it represented.
  232. So first, we see icons -
  233. first, we see indexes,
    then we see icons,
  234. and next we see symbols.
  235. So, what can a symbol be?
  236. Think of a shovel.
  237. Often when people talk about symbols
    they think of abstract art,
  238. but abstract art
    isn't necessary for symbols.
  239. Think of a shovel.
  240. A shovel is a tool,
    but when we see a shovel,
  241. we think of labor,
  242. we think of blisters,
  243. we think of gardening,
  244. we think of our family -
  245. all sorts of memories.
  246. The shovel becomes a symbol
    for a series of cultural values.
  247. The tools that erectus used
    were easily understood as symbols.
  248. In the way that they were
    taken care of, they represented it.
  249. In fact, we find a special
    hand axe, Excalibur,
  250. a colored quartz hand axe
    buried in an erectus burial site
  251. that indicates that they saw in this tool,
  252. as I'm saying, something symbolic.
  253. So, they had symbols,
    they had the capability for symbols,
  254. they had planning,
    they had hierarchical reasoning,
  255. they had ordered thought.
  256. So they needed a grammar.
  257. So what kinds
    of grammars are there?
  258. Well, there is one popular
    theory of grammar
  259. by someone I will not mention,
  260. but this particular theory of grammar
    is a little more elaborate than we need.
  261. I have identified three kinds of grammar
  262. in my field research
    over the last 40 years.
  263. One I'll call G1, the next one is G2,
    and the last one, very originally, is G3.
  264. G1 grammars are just
    grammars in linear order.
  265. We have examples of this in English:
  266. "You drink, you drive, you go to jail."
  267. "No shirt, no shoes, no service."
  268. It's just words in order.
  269. But the next kind
    of grammar, a G2 grammar -
  270. and let me point out
  271. that there are modern languages,
    such as Riau of Indonesia and Pirahã,
  272. in which serious psycholinguists
    have argued that their grammars
  273. are this G1 type -
    just words in linear order.
  274. A G2 grammar has hierarchy,
  275. so "If you drink and you drive,
    then you go to jail."
  276. You take the words
    and you make a larger sentence.
  277. And a G3 grammar has
    hierarchy and recursion:
  278. "If you drink and drive
    and know you shouldn't do that
  279. because your wife's going to get upset
  280. because her father told you
    the last time you did
  281. he was never going
    to give you bond money again,"
  282. and you can just keep on going.
  283. Those kinds of grammars are found
    commonly in the world's languages,
  284. but you can express anything
    from a G3 grammar in a G1 grammar;
  285. mathematically they're all of equal power.
  286. So, once you have symbols
    and a G1 grammar
  287. you have language,
    full-blown human language.
  288. We find those today.
  289. Was Homo erectus capable of that?
  290. Yes, they were.
  291. Did they show the kinds of communication,
  292. correction, cooperation, planning
  293. that would have required human language?
  294. Yes, they did.
  295. All animals communicate -
  296. there's not a single animal
    in the animal species
  297. that doesn't communicate -
  298. but it still seems that only humans
    communicate by means of language.
  299. Only humans have elaborate,
    symbolic, grammatical systems
  300. that allow us to communicate.
  301. But is there anything
    about what we've said
  302. that requires that grammars be a mutation?
  303. Or that grammars be innate?
  304. Or that grammars be an instinct?
  305. Does it seem any more than
    that there is an instinct for chemistry,
  306. or an instinct for building cars,
  307. or an instinct for making burritos.
  308. I can find making burritos
    in my brain somewhere,
  309. if you get into anatomy,
  310. you could identify where
    burritos are made in my brain,
  311. where that knowledge is,
  312. but that doesn't mean it's innate.
  313. It just means that's where
    it goes when I learn it,
  314. for a variety of reasons.
  315. So language, by all that we see,
  316. has been invented,
    it has been developed over time.
  317. So as soon as a culture gets hold
    of language, it starts to change it.
  318. Languages are always changing.
  319. Sometimes they become more elaborate,
    sometimes they become simpler.
  320. Homo erectus started
    the process of language
  321. through the accomplishments that they had,
  322. through what we know about
    their reasoning abilities,
  323. and through the artifacts and villages
  324. and evidence of voyages that they left
    in the archaeological record.
  325. Language started, if this is all correct -
  326. I urge upon you the view that it is -
  327. if this is all correct, language started
    then 60,000 generations ago.
  328. It's one of the greatest breakthroughs,
  329. the beginning of the information
    age for humanity,
  330. it enabled every other
    accomplishment of our species.
  331. And if we go back to this guy,
    we'll call him Johnny Erectus,
  332. in the sense of upright
    as opposed to other senses.
  333. And he is
  334. (Laughter)
  335. the person who first spoke.
  336. The first person perhaps
    who said to someone else,
  337. "I love you."
  338. Or who said, "Let's go."
  339. Or, "I want that."
  340. Imagine the possibilities
    and the elaborations -
  341. 60,000 generations of language.
  342. TED talks are an example
  343. of an attempt to harnass
    the power of human language.
  344. There is nothing more powerful
    on Earth than human language.
  345. We still don't understand
    everything about it,
  346. but we know that it makes us who we are -
  347. the ability to speak
    and communicate with one another.
  348. So, as you leave TED this evening,
  349. as you leave these talks and this day
    that we've spent together,
  350. use language, talk, and listen,
  351. and appreciate the value
    of this marvelous invention
  352. that these talking gorillas,
    Homo erectus, our ancestors,
  353. the first humans to walk the Earth,
  354. gave us.
  355. Thank you.
  356. (Applause)