Why Does Written Language Appear So Late after Human Origins?
Written language is a manifestation of symbolism, a quality that accounts for the exceptional cognitive ability displayed by human beings. Through symbolism, humanity can represent the world with discrete symbols and combine those symbols in a near infinite number of ways. This ability makes it possible for human beings to imagine and reflect on alternate realities.
But when did written language first appear? One of my Facebook friends asked:
Apparently written language does not appear until about 4000 BC? How does that square with the historic Christian (and the RTB model) understandings of the origins of humans, as it relates to being created in the image of God, i.e., should we believe that at our origins we were fully developed in our capacity to communicate, to include a written language? And if so, shouldn’t we expect to see evidence of written language earlier than we see now?
Written language is just one form of symbolism. Spoken language and gestures—as well as art, music, and jewelry—are also expressions of symbolic capability. Even our technological inventiveness demonstrates the capacity for symbolism. Biologist Jeffrey Schwartz and anthropologist Ian Tattersall describe the relationship between human exceptionalism and symbolism this way:
Unusual though Homo sapiens may be morphologically, it is undoubtedly our remarkable cognitive qualities that most strikingly demarcate us from all other extant species. They are certainly what give us our strong subjective sense of being qualitatively different. And they are ultimately traceable to our symbolic capacity. Human beings alone, it seems, mentally dissect the world into a multitude of discrete symbols, and combine and recombine those symbols in their minds to produce hypotheses of alternative possibilities.1
It is important to point out that symbolism is not merely an augmentation of nonsymbolic capabilities. Instead, it is something entirely different. Schwartz and Tattersall continue, “Symbolic and nonsymbolic cognitive states are clearly separated by a qualitative gulf: the former is not simply an extension of the latter, a little bit more of the same.2
So, although animals communicate, they don’t possess the open-ended ability to communicate through the use of symbols, a capacity that defines human language.
As a Christian, I see the symbolic capacity of human beings as an outworking of the image of God. If symbolism is intertwined with the image of God, then this capacity should be unique to modern humans. Evidence for symbolism in the archaeological record should coincide with the first appearance of modern humans. In fact, these two expectations are key predictions of the RTB human origins model. (For more details, see Who Was Adam?)
There is good evidence that symbolism (in the form of art and spoken language) coincides with the origin of modern humans. There is also good evidence that human beings alone possess the capacity for symbolism. Claims that Neanderthals made art don’t stand up to scrutiny. (For details, see the list of resources below.)
So, if symbolism coincides with the origin of modern humans, why does written language take so long to appear? The scientific data indicates that modern humans emerged around 100,000 to 150,000 years ago—yet the oldest written language, Sumer, didn’t emerge in Mesopotamia until around 3200 BC.
It is important to emphasize that the symbolic capacity that makes written language possible was in place well before then. Human beings already employed spoken words as ephemeral symbols; written language is merely representing these transient symbols in a more permanent manner. In this sense, it appears as if written language is a late human invention. It is probably best to view the emergence of written language as a technical innovation that grew out of cultural evolution, not as a manifestation of a new human capability.
Even though we are far advanced technologically, we are no different from our recent ancestors in terms of our cognitive capacity. The same is true when we compare our capabilities today with those of the first modern humans. For example, they used needles made from ivory to sew hides together; we use computer-programmed sewing machines to create clothing and synthetic fabrics. Both technologies reflect the human capacity for symbolism. The only difference is millennia of cultural evolution (powered by our symbolic capabilities, by the way). The same could be said for written language.
In regards to the origin of written language, a number of archaeologists point out that the precursors to written language were in place even before humans began to migrate around the world (around 60,000 years ago). Anthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has argued that there are 32 geometric signs that appear in cave walls throughout Europe and Southeast Asia, dating between 40,000 and 10,000 years in age. (See the list of resources.) These geometric markings occur more frequently on cave walls than do artistic depictions of animals. They also remain largely unchanged over geography and time. Von Petzinger posits that this consistency indicates that these symbols were likely used as a form of graphic communication, a proto-writing. The fact that these symbols appear in cave sites in Europe and Southeast Asia means that the first modern humans possessed proto-writing prior to 60,000 years ago.
To my knowledge, there is no evidence for painted geometric shapes in cave sites in Africa, but archaeologists have unearthed red ochre with engravings in the Blombos Cave of South Africa that evinces symbolism. Could it be that these engravings were examples of proto-writing?
In short, the late appearance of written language shouldn’t be a problem for the traditional biblical understanding of human origins (or the RTB human origins model). There is no discrepancy between the biblical account of human origins and the archaeological record if written language is rightly viewed as a technical innovation that was developed out of the use of geometric symbols, which may very well trace back to humanity’s origin. Both written language and pre-writing symbolism are manifestations of human symbolic capacity and reflect the image of God in humanity.
- “New Archaeological Evidence Fills the Gap in the Biblical Case for Human Origins”
- “The Oldest Art in the World”
- “Darwin’s Problem: The Origin of Language”
- “Paleoanthropologists Mixed Up about Neanderthal Behavior”
- “Did Neanderthals Make Art?”
- “One-of-a-Kind: Three Discoveries Affirm Human Uniqueness”
- For more details on the geometric shapes painted on ancient cave walls, watch the TED Talk delivered by Genevieve von Petzinger.
- Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey Schwartz, “Evolution of the Genus Homo,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37 (May 2009): 81.