When I was working on The Origin of Language in the late 1970s, the material available gave so vague an idea of the relation between language and human evolution that I decided to omit all discussion of the issue. In retrospect, that was a mistake, because it gave readers the impression that the originary hypothesis had no relevance to the scientific study of human origins.
For various reasons, this seems like an appropriate time to attempt a dialogue between GA and empirical anthropology. I am therefore presenting in the informal context of this column some preliminary and tentative conclusions. Those with expertise in the empirical study of human origins are invited to respond either via the GAlist, or by personal communication. The greatest benefit of the Internet for human thought is surely its growing capacity to make ideas accessible beyond the boundaries of academic specializations.
All the recent research confirms the existence of a watershed between Middle and Upper Paleolithic culture at about 35-40 kya (thousand years ago) when traces of art and ritual appear along with more sophisticated tool-making. It is generally agreed that this watershed involved the emergence of a new form of language and associated “symbolic behavior.” Although this linguistic newness is generally described as the achievement of syntaxical complexity rather than as a scenic revelation as per the originary hypothesis, clearly no “revolution” in syntax can explain the birth of the symbolic behavior of representation. It is striking that all the digging has not unearthed a single unambiguous piece of evidence for human representation before the Upper Paleolithic. Some pieces bear scratches that may be interpreted in various ways, but there is not one image, whereas the Upper Paleolithic abounds in imagery, culminating in the cave-art that bears comparison with the products of advanced civilizations. The anthropological literature never addresses the fundamental theme of GA, the essential connection between language, representation, and religion as components of human culture.
One of the reasons that led me to reformulate René Girard‘s hypothesis of origin was the absence in Paleolithic art of images of the creatures that in his hypothesis would be first to be sacralized, that is, (male) human victims. Instead, the sacred figures are almost exclusively animal, and the occasional female figurines suggest rather private fertility charms than sacrificial images. But this is a minor objection to a theory to which we owe the groundbreaking theoretical insight that the crucial and therefore the originary function of human representation is the deferral of mimetic conflict. Sadly, empirical anthropology does not attempt to refute or even dismiss this idea; it is simply absent from the bibliography.
Although I have just begun to examine this material, for the purpose of stimulating discussion, here are a few suggestions for associating the central insights of GA with the empirical data:
1. I have at times been tempted by the hypothesis that the origin of language took place in two historically distinct stages: (a) (100 – 200 kya) elementary language: ostensive + imperative; (b) (35-40 kya) mature language: declarative. But I think the data force us to reject this hypothesis, and to deny to the earlier forms of homo (pre-)sapiens the use of human language. “Anatomically modern” hominids predate the watershed event; the “modern” anatomy includes the wherewithal for speech and suggests that these hominids were selected for sound-articulating capacities. These creatures were far more advanced in areas like tool-making, hunting and gathering, and child-rearing than the apes of today. But their lack of a scenic intuition of representation is clear from the absence of any unambiguous evidence of graphic figuration or of ritual activity. Early hominid language must have been a complex signal system, not a language nourished by the scenic imagination derived from our hypothetical originary event. Their language must be considered prehuman, not because of its syntactic simplicity–although this was surely the case–but because its users lacked the human operation of representation.
2. The so-called Out of Africa or Eve hypothesis, founded on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) measurements, posits the total or near-total replacement of the Neandertal and related populations by “modern” African populations within a few thousand years of the watershed event. The radicality of this replacement creates difficulties in the minds of those who have examined the archaeological remains, many of whom adhere to the traditional multiregional evolutionary hypothesis. But the difficulties of the African hypothesis may be considerably reduced if it is understood that the true humans were characterized not simply by better genes but by a radically new form of social organization based on language and ritual culture. The qualitative nature of this change is more easily appreciated in the context of the originary hypothesis: a far higher level of mimetic activity, and therefore of economic and military power, is sustainable within a population that possesses mechanisms for the periodic deferral of mimetic violence. The persistence in modern populations of archaic local anatomical traits pointed to by the multiregionalists may be explained by hybridization with the prehuman population, since these populations’ disappearance was due more to cultural than to genetic inferiority.
3. The relatively rapid dispersal of the early humans can be explained more easily if the tensions due to mimetic rivalry are taken into account. The reproductive success of dynamic human communities would generate population movements not merely for ecological reasons, but because the greatest danger to humans comes from other humans.
Yet the originary hypothesis is formulated as an a priori construction rather than a falsifiable prediction. What can justify such a formulation? Let me call it the foxhole principle. There are no atheists in the foxholes because in crisis we are returned to the critical origin of culture, the originary union of language and the sacred. The same principle, in a less immediate form, applies to the creation of ideas. Religion impatiently explains natural phenomena by means of the anthropomorphic analogies at hand because its responsibility to human order cannot wait for a better explanation. GA‘s impatience is confined to the scenic realm of human self-understanding. Paleontology keeps bringing us new data; but postmodernity cannot wait for the definitive story of human evolution before attempting to bridge the gap between what C. P. Snow long ago called (from a sociological rather than an intellectual perspective) the two cultures. Nor do we have any reason to believe that, even once this story is told, a non-scenic “objective” knowledge of the human will become conceivable. I am less disturbed by the criticism that GA sounds like religion than I would be if it sounded, as do so many empirical studies of human origins, like the print-out of a data-base. The origin and nature of meaning can never be explained by reducing them to structures of the meaningless.
The originary hypothesis has an empirical core: empirically, we humans exist, and our existence is coextensive with our desire to understand ourselves. Human language and culture originated at some point in space-time, and rigorous reflection on the minimal conditions for this origin is as important in determining the nature of that point as the discovery of a Paleolithic site. Whence my hope that this column might help begin a fruitful dialogue between the students of humanitas and those of anthropos.