Could a Caveman Recite Shakespeare?

A radio ad for home improvement loans has a couple of men saying “Me want mancave! Me want pool table and big TV!” This got me wondering:

Why do we assume that cavemen were ignorant of articles or the proper use of personal pronouns?

You would think language becomes more sophisticated with time, but that is not always the case. Fifth century Anglo-Saxon was a more complex language than the modern English that evolved from it. Latin was much more complex than the languages, like Italian or Spanish, that evolved from it. Modern languages tend to have wider vocabularies than ancient ones, but that is partly a result of modern languages having to compensate for the expressive power they lost when they simplified their structures. Ancient Greek had the best of both worlds: it had not only a complex and highly nuanced structure, but it also had a wider vocabulary than any known language, ancient or modern, except modern English.

As far as I know, there is nothing in human experience that we can call “primitive language”.  Native Americans possessed stone-age technology and lived in semi-nomadic tribes so few Europeans bothered to learn their languages. But those who did, like seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries, were shocked to discover the complexity and beauty of those languages, which were full of poetic and rhetorical power.

The only way in which Native American languages could have been called “primitive” was that they lacked what we call “abstract nouns”. For a cliched example: instead of having an abstract word like “peace”, Indians would use the concrete and colorful  image “bury the hatchet”. But people who study the development of language would say that all abstract nouns were, many thousands of years ago, concrete nouns that referred to something abstract by way of analogy. For example: it is widely thought that European languages derive their word for God from an ancient word for the sky. Some tribal ancestor of  ours had the idea that there is an invisible person who is in some way like the sky, and began using “sky” to refer to him.

Behind language is the human capacity to make analogies (Love is like a Rose, etc.): to see that one thing is both like and unlike another, to imagine new things by looking at familiar ones, and communicate these insights through mutually agreed upon signs. This is why humans have art, myth, language and tradition. Other animals, even smart and social ones, do not make analogies.

So, to get back to my question: why do we assume adult cavemen spoke like two-year-olds? I think this is why:

We look at this chart and assume that modern humans speak correctly, not-so modern humans speak not-so well, and monkeys speak poorly. My purpose here is not to attack the theory of evolution: there is nothing objectionable about the observation that species change over time and seem to be interrelated.  (Like all great scientific advances Darwin’s basic idea was brilliant in its simplicity, explaining biodiversity by means of the capitalist theories of Adam Smith.) Rather, I want to attack some of the fuzzy ideas that surround evolutionary theory.

First of all, even though you can still see the above chart famous museums, contemporary biologists consider it to be inaccurate and prefer ones like this:

It seems that modern man, neanderthals, Denisovians, and other humanins were  more or less contemporaries and, according to the latest DNA research, members of the same species. They interbred. They were all human. Sadly, humanity has lost most of its genetic diversity over the millennia. (A tangent: wolves, poodles, dingoes, coyotes, bulldogs, greyhounds and yellow jackals are all members of the same species, but  foxes are not. Weird.)

The second (and for me more serious) problem with the famous chart is that it gives the impression that human experience is nothing special, that it is reducible to fortuitous breeding. History is full of thinkers who try to avoid the burden of being human by arguing that this mysterious, tragic, comic, wonderful, sinful being called man is really nothing other than economics (Marx), or sexual impulse (Freud), or breeding (Darwin) or the will to power (Nietzsche) or social pressure (Durkheim) or electro-chemical impulses (the mind-body project). These are all valid aspects that help determine us, but we are mistaken if we take the aspect for the whole. These ideas always work great on paper, but they do not solve our problems because they underestimate us.

It is not that humans do a good job of  telling stories, drawing pictures or praying to gods, while a few other animals do these things, but poorly; only humans do these strange things. For whatever reason we stand apart from the rest of nature with no middle grades between. It is a uniqueness we have to accept on its own grounds if we are to respect our own humanity.


  1. Can Geiko save you money on car insurance?

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  2. The Neanderthal had a larger brain. It was probably not its size, but the sections of the brain which determined our greater mental abilities. Yes, we don’t know whether we have greater mental abilities, but then, they were around a lot longer than we have been and did achieve what we have within the last couple of hundred years.
    We cannot just look at one aspect of humanity and expect to explain humanity. Evolution may be said to be the provider of the foundation needed to allow the other aspects to exist.

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