How Man Communicated Before He Had Words

early language

Comic credit: UserFriendly.org

There is much debate over when early man began to speak–with words, that is. Paleoanthropologists discuss the development of the brain and the throat–when was it evolved enough to support the formation of words and the thought that goes into syntax.

Me, I think when man was clever enough to live in groups, he had to come up with a way to communicate with each other. This isn’t a leap. Chimpanzees do it, pretty much communicating all of their basic needs. The difference is, we presume Man the Thinker must have had deep thoughts, plans, ideas, symbolic representations for his world. This, we will never know. What we do know is that there was no reason that Early Man couldn’t communicate to his group about what was important to his life. As more became important, I’m sure language adapted.

Here’s a primer, from chimpanzees:

  • body odor–excitement, fear, anger, etc. There is no reason early man couldn’t distinguish between the meaning of different body smells.
  • intense stare–mild threat. Early man had many more facial muscles than chimps, so we could probably use and understand much more than an ‘intense stare’. How about a ‘loving look’, or a ‘pained look’.
  • quick yawn to expose canines–threat. Early man didn’t have canines, but the exposed teeth probably still got a message across, especially in conjunction with arm movements and noises. The body became larger and more threatening. This probably included ‘hair raise’ as we still do when we sense danger.
  • bobbing back and forth in a crouched position–threat. Ready to attack.
  • branch-shaking–threat. A weapon and the branch enlarges the body. Both reasonable body language for ‘I’m a danger to you’.
  • crouched position–submission. Not ready to attack, head down so not even looking. that sounds almost like the fetal position
  • touching/patting–reassurance. Chimps do a lot more grooming than early man because their groups are smaller. Scientists hypothesize that one functionlanguage served was as ‘verbal grooming’, allowing an individual to ‘groom’ or assuage more than one person at a time.
  • grooming–submission, reassurance. See above.
  • play face–play. This communicates so much more than words, in both children and adults.
  • fear grin–fear. Fear shows on our face before we ever get a word out. It’s a much better means of communicating danger than language to anyone looking at us.
  • waving arms–anger. this is much like the ‘branch-shaking’ above, but without a weapon. Not as threatening, but the communication of ‘anger’ is clear
  • barking-like a dog’s bark. How often do you read that a character ‘barked’. Same idea.
  • pant-hoot–I wish this hadn’t evolved away. It’s a primal reaction to an emotion. I at times feel like a good pant-hoot would help.
  • A loud, long, savage-sounding wraaaa call is made when a chimpanzee comes across something unusual or dangerous. We might yell, but the ‘wraa’ communicates something more. It’s similar to yelling what the danger is.
  • When young chimpanzees play, they emit breathy laughter. And soft grunts uttered by foraging or resting chimpanzees probably serve to maintain communication within the group. There is no difference between the play of modern man’s young. Words are unnecessary because the sounds say it all.
  • touching, kissing, or embracing the subordinate. We still do this to communicate a particular message.
  • When angry, chimpanzees may stand upright, swagger, wave their arms, throw branches or rocks – all with bristling hair and often while screaming or with lips bunched in ferocious scowls. Read: the neighborhood bully.


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