Ancient cave drawings hint at the origin of language, study finds

Steven Mike Voser
The origin of language has been a hot topic for scholars and researchers for centuries. Due to a lack of evidence, it's a topic that's notoriously hard to study, and hence there is no real consensus about how humans developed language. But new research suggests we might find the answers in ancient cave art.

Language is strangely fascinating. It’s the backbone of how we communicate and based entirely on sounds which our brains associate with specific things or emotions. But where did language originate from, and how did it evolve to the complex system we know today? Well, that’s a question researchers, historians, and scientists have been trying to answer for a long time. In fact, the first human language has been debated for centuries, and there is still no consensus on the origins or age of language. But that might soon change.

A new study co-authored by Shigeru Miyagawa, a linguist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests taking a closer look at the writing on the walls. Literally. The study (published in Frontiers In Psychology) suggests that cave art might help us uncover the answers to the age-old questions regarding the origin of language. In his research, Miyagawa found that cave drawings are typically drawn on acoustic hot spots in the cave, where sound reverberates and echoes more than in other parts. These hotspots are typically located deeper in the caves that are harder to reach. These findings suggest that acoustics and sound where particularly important for cave art and that early humans sought out specific parts of caves to put their drawings rather than just slapping them on the first cave wall they came across.
But that might soon change.
Miyagawa and his co-authors suggest that drawings found in these “hotspots” likely represent the sounds people heard or generated in these areas. This transfer of information is what Miyagawa and his co-authors call a “cross-modality information transfer” and involved connecting aural information and processing it to create new visual information. This is particularly interesting, the authors say, because it shows how art provided an avenue for early humans to evolve more complex symbolic thinking patterns; no longer were humans experiencing the world through their sense, but they were now beginning to reinterpret it via this art form. Moreover, it is really interesting to see the coming together of aural information and symbolic images.
After all, those are the essential building blocks of modern language; you make a sound, and someone else’s brain automatically associates that sound with a symbolic image of whatever you said. “Cave art was part of the package deal in terms of how homo sapiens came to have this very high-level cognitive processing,” said Miyagawa. “You have this very concrete cognitive process that converts an acoustic signal into some mental representation and externalizes it as a visual.” Based on this information, Miyagawa is certain cave art served as a mode of communication for early humans. “I think it’s very clear that these artists were talking to one another,” he said. “It’s a communal effort.”
“It’s a communal effort.”
This is a huge advancement in the study of the origins of language. The human species is believed to be around 200,000 years old and estimated to have been using language for about half that time. Apart from that, there are very few concrete or agreed-upon ideas about language, where it came from, and what encouraged humans to use and evolve it. So, why is there such little consensus about the origins of language? Mainly because there’s hardly any evidence to help us form solid opinions or theories on it. “There’s this idea that language doesn’t fossilize, and it’s true, but maybe in these artefacts [cave drawings], we can see some of the beginnings of homo sapiens as symbolic beings,” said Miyagawa.
Cave art can be found all around the world. Some notable examples can be found in Lascaux (France), Altamira (Spain), Blombos Cave (South Africa), and Sulawesi (Indonesia). For Miyagawa, these sites might hold the key to understanding the origins of our language. “Acoustically based cave art must have had a hand in forming our cognitive symbolic mind,” he said.