What Was the Language of the First Human Beings?

By Dan Willmore

Everybody knows that different groups of people use different words to mean the same things, so that the English word ‘water’ means the same thing as the Spanish word ‘agua’, and so forth. Learning any language requires learning thousands -- or tens of thousands -- of words of vocabulary. However, learning new words for old things is usually the easiest part of learning a new language, because different groups of language require different ways of thinking.

Let me give you some examples. For instance, languages from Europe and India have a wide variety of tenses, past and future and subjunctives, and even the ‘perfects’, a series of tenses which allow us to say things like ‘I would have helped if I had known.’ People who are raised in America or Germany or Pakistan often think that these tenses are natural to all languages, but they are not. In fact, a completely different group of languages exists in a long belt of countries which runs from Turkey to Uzbekistan to Mongolia, Korea, and Japan. These languages are called the Altaic languages, and they have only two tenses, a past and a present. I spent years teaching English professionally, and I assure you that people who speak Altaic languages have to work very hard to learn grammatical forms like the perfect and the subjunctive.

Then, if we go a little further we find the Sinic Language group, which includes the Chinese and the Tibetans. The Sinic speakers have no tenses at all; instead, they simply indicate time by attaching time words to the same verbs they would use otherwise. Thus, if we are speaking English, we might say that "Jane saw a cat yesterday, Jane sees a cat today, and Jane will see a cat tomorrow." However, if we translated the grammar into Chinese and left the vocabulary in English, we would get something like "Yesterday Jane see a cat, Today Jane see a cat, tomorrow Jane see a cat." Anyone who has studied Latin or even Spanish should enjoy studying a language in which the verbs are never conjugated. Unfortunately, the differences do not end there.

The Sinic languages throw in a new complexity which surprises most Westerners, and I have often spent a long time explaining it to people who do not believe that such a thing can be true. The Sinic languages are tonal languages. In a tonal language, the tone of the speakers voice does much more than express mood or doubt; instead, changing the tone can cause the same syllable to mean four different things depending on the tone in which the speaker said it. For example, The syllable ‘ma’ means ‘mother’ if the speaker says it with a level tone, but ‘ma’ means ‘question’ if the speaker allows his tone to rise, and ‘ma’ means ‘horse’ if the speaker allows his tone to go down and then up. If the speaker drops his tone while saying ‘ma’, the word is simply a curse.

Yes, this is pretty complex, and some experts spend a lifetime studying the differences in human languages. However, we are all the same species, and at some point all of our ancestors must have lived in the same place. Today most experts believe that place was somewhere in Africa. If, then, all of the people in the world lived in the same place -- even belonged to the same tribe -- they must have spoken the same language.

Now that is a big concept, and it seems to invite a lot of thought. At one time, all of our ancestors spoke the same language, and that does not just mean the ancestors of people in the DC area, it also means the ancestors of the Chinese, and the Syrians, and the Navaho, and the Ashanti, and every other race or nationality on earth. What was that language? What was it like? Obviously, most languages change fairly quickly, so that last common language was not Spanish or Turkish or Chinese. Can we even guess about the qualities of the last common language? Did it have many tenses, like English, or two tenses, like Japanese, or no tenses, like Tibetan? Was it atonal, like European and Altaic languages, or tonal, like Chinese and Tibetan?

We could stare into the fireplace for a while on that question, and many people have. Unfortunately, the tongue does not leave fossils, and nobody back then made any tape recordings. As could be expected, some experts are pessimistic about the whole issue; they think that the last common language is dead now, and we can never even guess at what it was like.

Fortunately, science never stands still, and now there may be an opening. Now some scientists working in Africa are starting to make some new theories. Using DNA analysis, they have begun to decide that some groups of people are ‘more ancient’ than others. That is to say, experts believe that all of our ancestors came from Africa about fifty thousand years ago, but that some groups of people have wandered far over the earth, interbreeding with other groups and changing a great deal, while other groups have not moved very much, and have interbred only rarely with others. To figure out which groups are ‘older’, scientists are taking samples from the cells of people all over the world. For their purposes, the key part of the cell is the mitochondria.

Some of our readers might remember their biology classes back in school, where we always saw big pictures of the cell. In the middle of the cell there was the nucleus, and the nucleus contained most of the genes to make a new cell, or a new person. Outside the nucleus were the organelles. In the books these always looked like little patches, and they serve as the organs of the cell, doing special jobs the way the heart and the liver do special jobs in the body. Each cell has a single mitochondria, and charts always had the mitochondria colored green. The mitochondria have the job of breaking up the sugar in the cell, and turning it into energy for the cell to function. In that sense each mitochondria is the ‘dynamo’ of the cell, which gives energy so that the other organelles can do their work.

Anyway, the amazing thing about the mitochondria is that the cell does not create them. All of the other parts and organelles of the cell are created by the DNA in the nucleus, and all the information to create them is stored in the nucleus. That way the center of the cell is like a big library, and it contains blueprints for all of the parts of the cell, and of the body. However, the nucleus does not contain blueprints for the mitochondria. Instead, the mitochondria is the only part of the cell which contains its own genes.

Again, I will ask you to remember back to biology class. In it you probably remember how a sperm and an egg come together to make a zygote, and that zygote becomes a new person, or a chicken, or a cherry tree, as the case may be. When the sperm and the egg come together, each gives half of the genes for the organism, and there is no way of knowing exactly which half will come from which parent; that way, a blue eyed man and a brown eyed woman might have a blue eyed child, or a brown eyed child, or both -- the genes are mixed, and the child may get genes for his eyes from his mother or his father. However, the mitochondria are different. New mitochondria do not -- NOT -- get genes from the father, ever. Instead, the mitochondria simply divide like amoebas, so that one mitochondria becomes two mitochondrias, and those mitochondrias are exactly the same as the one in the beginning. That is why a boy may have his mother’s hair or his father’s hair, and a girl may have her mother’s nose or her father’s nose, but each boy and girl will get his mother’s mitochondria, and no other. Nothing is mixed, and nothing comes from the father. Instead, the new mitochondria are simply embedded in the mother’s ova when she is still in the womb, and they don’t change.

Well, mostly they don’t change. The mitochondria never mix, but they can mutate. Every couple of hundred years a woman’s eggs may be floating in her body, and the mitochondria in one of those eggs might be hit by a stray particle of radiation. Sometimes the radiation will ruin the egg, and then no offspring will come from it; but at other times the radiation will mark the mitochondria without actually damaging it, like branding a cow. Then, when the mitochondria divide, the new mitochondria will have the same marks, and give them to their descendents, for thousands or tens of thousands of years. Since the genes in the mitochondria never mix the way other genes mix, these marks can be traced across continents and millennia, and show how human beings are related.

As I think I have mentioned, these marks in the mitochondria have shown us some interesting things. Now many experts believe that human beings began in Africa, not once but several times. Over and over again waves of Homo Erectus and Homo Ergaster and other early people came out of Africa and spread across Europe and Asia, where they were very happy until a new wave of early people came out of Africa and replaced them. The last time this happened was when Homo Sapiens-our own species-came out of Africa and destroyed Homo Neanderthalus, about fifty thousand years ago.

A Hadzabe man in Tanzania.  The Hadzbe still speak a click language.

A Hadzabe man in Tanzania. The Hadzbe
still speak a click language.

What language did those first people speak? Right now some scientists are suggesting that it was a ‘click’ language. A click language is a language where people make sounds by clicking their tongues against the roofs of their mouths. If you think about how people nicker like a horse, or click like a squirrel, you will get it. Right now there are only two groups of people in the world who still click in their normal spoken speech. One group are the Khoisan, whom you may remember from the movie ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy,’ and who live in the country that we now call Namibia. Another group are some Africans who live a long way away from them, in Tanzania near Lake Victoria. These people are often called the Hadzabe. Both groups use four or five distinctly different types of clicks in their speech, and almost half of what they say is expressed through clicks. However, these two groups are hardly close relatives. DNA evidence from their mitochondria indicates that these two peoples have been separate from the rest of the human race for a long time, and they have also been separate from each other for more than fifty thousand years. Since modern humans began to leave Africa fifty thousand years ago, this means that the Khoisan and the Hadzabe have been divided from each other since the dawn of modern man. This means that anything that they have in common now they must have had in common then, fifty thousand years ago.

A Khoisan man hunting.  Though some Khoisan have adopted modern customs, other still live in the traditional way.

A Khoisan man hunting. Though some Khoisan
have adopted modern customs, other still
live in the traditional way.

Now, there are one or two more pieces of evidence. No other groups of living humans speak in clicks, but there was a ‘ritual’ language in Australia which just died out, and this language did include clicks. Most experts believe that modern humans left Africa in a wave and spread all over the world, and most experts believe that this first wave was thin, black, and tall like Aborigines; but in most places this first wave was then replaced by other waves which began on the Eurasian landmass. These new races included the people we now think of as whites, and ‘Orientals,’ and Native Americans, and so forth. Thus, many experts believe that the Aborigines have changed the least since they left Africa, and if any people ‘out of Africa’ are likely to retain those ancient ways, it would be them. Finally, most people who study language say that people can replace clicks in spoken speech with consonants and other sounds which we think of as ‘normal.’ I had to think about this fairly hard, because it is an important point. According to the experts in language, people can start out clicking and then soften their clicks into the kind of tongue and teeth sounds people use in languages like English and Chinese. However, the experts say, people never turn the usual consonants into clicking, because that is too large an imaginative jump. All of this suggests that the Hadzabe and Khoisan and that small group of Aborigines did not invent click languages independently of each other -- instead, they all spoke click languages together at the dawn of the human species, when we and they and everyone else were a single people in Africa.

Is this true? Perhaps. It is certainly an elegant and impressive theory, but in my time I have read many elegant and impressive theories, only to find out five or ten years later that somebody had proved them wrong. Again, we do not have a time machine, and we do not have even a tape recording of how people spoke fifty thousand years ago, so our best speculations may never be more than speculations. I don’t know. However, I do have a final thought.

Scientists have given a lot of thought to the way that languages blur in spoken speech. Even today, we might say ‘wanna’ instead of want to’ and ‘gonna’ instead of ‘going to’, finding the set of mouth movements which are easiest to use. If millions of people do this over hundreds of years, languages are born and languages die, so that former slaves might turn the Language of Latin into Spanish and Portuguese, and so forth. Looking carefully at the way people move their tongues, experts say that a click language can become a nonclick language, but the reverse can never happen; human beings will never turn a hard ‘D’ or a hard ‘T’ or any other consonant into a click.

That sounds convincing, but I had to think about it for a while, and the same question kept coming up. If human beings cannot move from consonants to clicks, how did click language begin in the first place?

To answer that, I did some thinking about what makes Homo Sapiens different from earlier species of hominid. Obviously, it is not walking on two feet; every hominid has done that for at least three million years. Neither is it using tools, because it looks like Homo Erectus, more than a million years ago, could do that quite well. Making fires did not separate the men from the proto-men, because early species such as Homo Ergaster have left firepits all over the world; and even the ability to speak was not the final change, because scientists in Europe have dug up the throat bones of Neanderthals, and they were built to form words. The species before us, whatever it was, could talk.

Now, however, some scientists are wondering if the big change between ourselves and the species before us was not something overt, like the size of the skull or the shape of the pelvis, but something more subtle. Instead of a change in the bones, there might have been a change in the soft tissues, a mutation that altered and improved the way the brain functioned. Paleontology and everything else indicates that this change occurred in Africa, where some individual was born with the ability to turn images into words in larger and more complex ways.

Did that happen? Again, it is hard to say; there were no tape recorders, and soft tissues rarely fossilize. But...if a new ‘race of mutants’ did begin in Africa, what kind of language did they speak? Did the mutation make them start speaking in click languages? If so, why didn’t later races, in the rest of Africa and the rest of the world, continue speaking in clicks? If these first modern humans used click languages, did they begin clicking themselves, or did they inherit clicking from the species before them? Were clicks a kind of large heavy sound that was used by the previous species -- the species before Homo Sapiens -- and then multiplied and compounded by Homo Sapiens, before most races of modern men stopped using clicks altogether? Did Homo Neanderthalus, or even Homo Ergaster, use clicks, as well as the grunts and ‘uggumms’ we all remember from the movies? It is fascinating to think about it, but I guess we will never be sure.

Copyright 2003 Dan Willmore

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