The First Words of Hominids

Study the evolution of the tool of language- the reproduction mechanism whereby a cognitive pattern can self replicate  from one consciousness to another.

The utility of gesture for evolutionary advantage is clear for hunters in silence after quarry, or to animals without the range of vocal variations. There is an interesting argument that the first “words” were likely not uttered by humans let alone hominids in this sense of the term. There is also interesting recent research about mirror neurons that suggests how gestures had a special advantage for accurately transferring neurological map activation. This general direction of mechanical analysis of proto-word usage is exceptionally interesting and important. But we would be remiss if we neglected to come about it from the other direction.

The connection with consciousness could be looked at from the notional models being built up in the quickly moving field of neurology, and from philosophical theories of mind. At base is the ability to associate one thing (in language’s case gesture or utterance) with some progressively distant other thing. Antonio Damasio (in this book) talks about neural maps that allow an organism to associate observed sense data with what we would abstractly call representations- for example of the animal’s prey or of a predator. Such neural maps had immense survival value even for organisms we would be hesitant to describe as even having dim senses of consciousness.

Students of literature will note the resemblance of the neural map mechanism to the essence of symbolic language- when we do one thing (sign) and mean another. To illustrate one developing account that explains the transition of this proto word mechanism into the fundamentals of language, anthropological studies of behaviors used by early man might shed some additional light.

The geneticist Spencer Wells presented a documentary called the Journey of Man that had an interesting metaphor in connection with the description of the renaissance of consciousness in the Upper Paleolithic Revolution 40,000 years ago. The visual imagery of the documentary was skillful- they showed some aboriginal hunters tracking their prey. The camera shows a hoof mark that to me suggested a cuneiform mark. The narrator explains the significance of noting how sharp the mark is in the soft soil- indicating how recently the mark was made, the direction of the movement, the size and type of prey, and so on. The hominid could look at these marks and project a neural map of the prey in time. The map achieves the grammar of a narrative, beginning with a pattern of signs the producing a mental representation of the animal when they made the mark, to an image of them killing their prey at some projected location in the future. This has tremendous advantage over the more literal minded lion. To lion awareness, if there is no direct signs via scent or vision, their neural maps can’t make the connection. In their phenomenal world, the prey simply does not exist, and the mark has no phenomenal existence.

In this sense, the first “words” were these sorts of signs that the world spoke to us. It was a relatively simple transition from this “look at one thing and find meaning of another” into the language of gestures or utterances to transfer meanings- to transfer the stuff of consciousness so that a collective consciousness (culture) could take place. But this “look and one thing and find meaning in another” is the essence of the neural map mechanism which has an ancient history. The ability of it to create mental representations to signify meaning was an evolutionary springboard to the more finely developed identical activity in language of using gestures or utterances to signify meaning.

This account is ironic for our modern association of the word “literal” with the word “truth”, since its claim is that our increasing ability to apprehend meaning is due not to our ability to take things literally, but to approach them as proto-metaphors for something else. James Hillman, has a lot to say about the integration of symbol with mythic consciousness from a psychological and cultural standpoint. Then you have philologists who develop theories on the evolution of consciousness such as Owen Barfield whose thought also dovetails nicely with this account from a purely cultural and phenomenological perspective. The logos of fictional signification is fertile ground for such a diverse set of fields that it includes recovery of the of the missed significance of the leading statements of the Fourth Gospel to theories of the evolution of consciousness.


About John JMesserly

Mostly harmless

Posted on 2011-11-06, in anthropology, Antonio Damasio, evolution of consciousness, language, phenomenology. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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