A new theory suggests that Homo erectus was able to create seagoing vessels – and must have used language to sail successfully
They had bodies similar to modern humans, could make tools, and were possibly the first to cook. Now one expert is arguing that Homo erectus might have been a mariner – complete with sailing lingo.
Homo erectus first appeared in Africa more than 1.8m years ago and is thought to be the first archaic human to leave the continent.
H. erectus fossils have turned up not only in Southern Europe, but as far afield as China and Indonesia. Some argue that the mysterious hominid Homo floresiensis, discovered on the island of Flores, could be descended from H. erectus – although others disagree.
“Oceans were never a barrier to the travels of Erectus. He travelled all over the world, travelled to the island of Flores, across one of the greatest ocean currents in the world,” said Daniel Everett, professor of global studies at Bentley University, and author of How Language Began. “They sailed to the island of Crete and various other islands. It was intentional: they needed craft and they needed to take groups of twenty or so at least to get to those places.”
While Everett is not the first to raise the controversial possibility that H. erectus might have fashioned some sort of seagoing vessel, he believes that such capabilities mean that H. erectus must also have had another skill: language.
“Erectus needed language when they were sailing to the island of Flores. They couldn’t have simply caught a ride on a floating log because then they would have been washed out to sea when they hit the current,” said Everett, presenting his thesis at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin. “They needed to be able to paddle. And if they paddled they needed to be able to say ‘paddle there’ or ‘don’t paddle.’ You need communication with symbols not just grunts.”
It is unknown when language emerged among hominids; some argue that it is a feature only of our own species, Homo sapiens, which suggests a timing of no earlier than 200,000 years ago. But Everett believes it goes back further than that.
Everett says that H. erectus would have been unable to make the same range of sounds as we do, not least because they lacked the version of a gene necessary for speech and language to develop – known as FOXP2 – found in modern humans and Neanderthals, although it is not clear whether Neanderthals had language. But he argues that as few as two sounds are needed for a language, and that it is likely H.erectus could make more than that.
“They had what it took to invent language – and language is not as hard as many linguists have led us to believe. If you have symbols in a linear order then you have a grammar,” said Everett. “Homo erectus spoke and invented the Model T Ford of language. We speak the Tesla form, but their Model T form was not a proto-language it was a real language.”
“Everybody talks about Homo erectus as a stupid ape-like creature, which of course describes us just as well, and yet what I want to emphasise is that Erectus was the smartest creature that had ever walked the Earth,” he said.
The theory received mixed reactions from others. Kevin Laland, professor of behavioural and evolutionary biology at the University of St Andrews, said he agreed with Everett. “The important thing to recognise is that language did not appear in modern form all at once, but gradually evolved from a protoculture comprising just a handful of words with little grammatical structure. Certainly, it is highly plausible that Homo erectus had a protolinguistic capability,” he said, adding that work by his own team hinted it was possible. “Our experiment suggests that it would have been very difficult for knowledge of how to manufacture Homo erectus’s Acheulian stone tools to spread without a simple form of language. The study also demonstrates that stone toolmaking would had created a selection pressure favouring increased linguistic capabilities,” he said.
But others say that there is little evidence that H. erectus was a sophisticated seafarer, let alone had a language. “I don’t accept that, for example, [Homo] erectus must have had boats to get to Flores,” said Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London. “Tsunamis could have moved early humans on rafts of vegetation.”
That said, Stringer notes that Homo heidelbergensis, another extinct relative of ours that lived between 700,000 and 300,000 years ago, might have been capable of some sort of chat. “I think [Homo] heidelbergensis had a complex enough life to require speech, though not at the level of modern human language. With [Homo] erectus, I’m not so sure,” said Stringer, adding that the ability of H. erectus to make and use tools is not, as some have argued, convincing evidence. “Chimps and crows make and use tools without a human kind of language,” he said.