Ancient Cave Drawings May Be The Origin Of Modern Language

In order to understand how humans developed language, MIT professors turned to ancient cave drawings. Specific features of ancient cave drawings may give us a closer insight into how language evolved, asserts MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa in a recently published paper.

While the connection between ancient cave drawings and the evolution of language may not be immediately clear, the evolution has more to do with the location than the drawing themselves. Miyagawa suggests that the drawings are usually present in a deeper and harder to access of caves, which indicates that the acoustics of the area were the primary reason that ancient humans chose these positions. It turns out that these ancient cave drawings may actually represent the sounds that early humans generated in these acoustic chambers – the sounds that eventually led to the evolution of organized language.

Ancient Cave Drawings
By Raveesh Vyas [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Miyagawa and the other co-authors of the paper called the crossing between these sounds and the ancient cave drawings “cross-modality information transfer”, describing the connection between two different forms of communication – verbalization and art. This combination of sounds and creative expression gave our ancestors the ability to “enhance their ability to convey symbolic thinking.” As speaking is primarily a way to transfer information, bridging the gap between the creation of these ancient cave drawings and more advanced communication may have been a large part of the way our modern languages started to develop.

“Cave art was part of the package deal in terms of how homo sapiens came to have this very high-level cognitive processing…You have this very concrete cognitive process that converts an acoustic signal into some mental representation and externalizes it as a visual,” stated Miyagawa.

The authors also suggest that these ancient cave drawings weren’t some abstract form of beauty, rather serving as an early form of communication between ancient humans.

“I think it’s very clear that these artists were talking to one another,” Miyagawa says. “It’s a communal effort.”

“It’s very difficult to try to understand how human language itself appeared in evolution…we don’t know 99.9999 percent of what was going on back then…There’s this idea that language doesn’t fossilize, and it’s true, but maybe in these artifacts [cave drawings], we can see some of the beginnings of homo sapiens as symbolic beings.”

Ancient cave drawings are prevalent around the world, with some discovered drawings dating back around 40000 years. As such a large part of ancient society, the idea that these drawings could have been a form of communication certainly has merit.

“Cave art is everywhere,” Miyagawa says. “Every major continent inhabited by homo sapiens has cave art. … You find it in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, everywhere, just like human language.”

“You have action, objects, and modification…acoustically based cave art must have had a hand in forming our cognitive symbolic mind.”

The main takeaway from this discovery – outside of the fact that it contributes to our understanding of the evolution of our species – is that art is more than just a form of esoteric beauty. In its most primal form, ancient cave drawings may have served as the foundation of the myriad of languages humanity uses to communicate today.

“If this is on the right track, it’s quite possible that … cross-modality transfer helped develop a symbolic mind…art is not just something that is marginal to our culture, but central to the formation of our cognitive abilities.”

Miyagawa’s paper was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.