Sign Language May Be Older Than Thought


There are several theories about the origin of human language and one of them is the gestural theory, whereby humans communicated through gestures before developing spoken-oral language or simultaneously. Research in 2021 by the French National Centre for Scientific Research provides new evidence that Sign Languages are 30 to 35,000 years old.

Picture by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

Paintings From the Caves of Gargas

Most of the paintings found from the Palaeolithic period (from 2.5 million years ago to 12,000 years ago) are depictions of hunting animals and some of human figures. However, quite a few paintings of hands have also been found and, among these, the most notable are the prints from the Franco-Spanish region of Western Europe: several of them are hands with missing fingers. Until now it was thought that they might represent amputations due to frostbite or disease, or even mutilations in sacrifices or magical rites.

However, linguists at the French National Centre for Scientific Research suspect that these are neither accidental amputations nor intentional mutilations, as they do not correspond to any other historical or empirical evidence. They therefore raised the possibility that the fingers had been folded specifically to make these prints and that they represent some kind of signs for communication as in the Sign Languages of deaf people.

A good example of such fingerless hand paintings can be found in the Caves of Gargas in the French Pyrenees, which are 30-35,000 years old. Below is a real image of the paintings found in the caves and, next to it, a replica in which the missing fingers can be seen more clearly.

Handprints found in the Gargas caves, in the French Pyrenees. On the left, real photos of the paintings (photo: © Y. Rumeau). On the right, replica in which the missing fingers can be better visualized (photo: José-Manuel Benito via Wikimedia).

Proving They Are Signs

To prove that the hand paintings at Gargas are communicative signs, the linguists analysed 92 paintings and used algorithms to test the ease or difficulty of representing the different hand shapes in the air without flexing the fingers against the wall, a biomechanical criteria algorithm applied to Sign Languages to see if they are articulable. And indeed, they showed that all the hand shapes found in this cave can be produced as signs and do not need to lean against the wall to represent them.

In addition, they found a similarity to the Sign Languages used by hunter-gatherer populations, such as native Australian populations, southern African hunters or North American Indians. Researchers believe that they could represent events, objects or numbers, and were used as one of the earliest forms of writing when they were carved on cave walls. Not only that, but they are also analysing other caves in Europe and are finding the same pattern.

For all these reasons, they believe it is possible that these signs were used by Upper Palaeolithic humans to communicate mainly during hunting, a discovery that could be giving us clues about the origin of language.

Therefore, they believe that it is possible that these signs were used by Upper Paleolithic humans to communicate mainly during hunting, a discovery that could be giving us clues about the origin of language.

Gestural Origin of Human Language

The origin of human language is one of the most fascinating topics of research and debate among linguists. Although the origin of language is a great unknown for the scientific community (some believe that we may never know for sure), there are several theories about its origin, with the gestural origin theory being one of the most widespread and debated.

The gestural origin theory considers that gestures or signs were first used to communicate before the appearance of spoken language. The main arguments are:

1. gestures have been found in non-human primates similar to human gestures. In addition, hand gestures are much easier to articulate in primates than vocalization with the lips and tongue.

2. It has been shown that apes can learn and communicate in Sign Language (for example, see here this article in Unusualverse about the chimpanzee Washoe and the gorilla Koko).

3. Research on the Sign Languages of deaf people has shown that they activate the same areas of the brain as speech.

4. Studies on babies show that the action of pointing, followed by symbolic gestures, precedes the acquisition of speech, which may indicate the primordial nature of signs.

5. Infants can understand and express themselves in Sign Language long before they are able to speak.

6. Hand and face gestures are natural to spoken communication and complement it, i.e., much of the communication in hearing people is multimodal.

If you are interested in the origin of language, we recommend the following TED video in which, around minute 2:30, it is reported that "great apes give us a possible clue about the origins of language, but language may have started as a gesture rather than speech. Great apes gesture in the wild much more freely than they vocalize" (optional subtitles in 29 languages).

Importance of Sign Languages

Once again, knowledge of Sign Languages is helping to advance other knowledge, in this case, about the origin of human language. Research on the neurology of Sign Language, experiments in teaching Sign Language to apes, linguistic studies on Sign Languages and even on the biomechanical aspects of Sign Languages are helping other researchers to theorize about the origin of human language.


Post a Comment

* Por favor, no hagas spam aquí. El spam será eliminado.
Post a Comment (0)
Unusualverse Android App

#buttons=(Accept) #days=(30)

This site uses Google cookies to provide its services and to analyse its traffic. Your IP address and user-agent are shared with Google, along with performance and security metrics, to ensure quality of service, generate usage statistics, and detect and resolve abuses. Know more
Accept !
Go up