Our ancestors seem to have had a regular system of 26 symbols, which may have been the origins of written language. First discovered in France, these symbols crop up throughout the prehistoric world, leading some to wonder whether they originated with early humans as they migrated across the globe out of Africa some 70,000 years ago.
From the walls of the Great Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux II cave, Dordogne, France to rock paintings in Chobe National Park, Botswana,. to caves and canyon walls in Australia, central Africa, Europe, India and South and North America, breathtakingly beautiful Stone Age paintings have revealed strange squiggles, semicircles, lines, dots, spirals, hands and zigzags that may hold the key to understanding early forms of human communication.
The zigzag lines for example didn't emerge until 20,000 years ago and by 13,000 years ago had disappeared. A similarly shaped snaking form existed from 30,000 years ago but also died off around 13,000 years ago.
A multidisciplinary team of scientists at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico is working toward reconstructing the mother of all languages. Since all representatives of the species Homo sapiens presumably share a common origin, it would be natural to suppose that all human languages also go back to some common source. Most existing classifications, however, do not go beyond some 300-400-language families that are relatively easy to discern. This restriction has natural reasons: languages must have been spoken and constantly evolving for at least 40,000 years (and quite probably more), while any two languages separated from a common source inevitably lose almost all superficially common features after some 6,000-7,000 years.
Headed by Nobel Laureate physicist Murray Gell-Mann, the international Evolution of Human Languages (EHL) project is developing a freely accessible etymological database of the world's languages. Their goal is to trace all living languages back to a common source, a proto-language of a "proto-world" or "proto-sapiens," which arose only once, they believe, before anatomically modern humans left Africa to colonize the world.
These modern humans, who had existed for at least 150,000 years, suddenly began behaving differently around 50,000 years ago. Until then, their behavior barely differed from their cousins, the Neanderthals: both buried their dead, used stone tools, and, as social apes, both had some form of communication, which some experts think was gestural.
But then, "almost overnight, everything changes very rapidly," says Merritt Ruhlen, a lecturer in the Anthropological Sciences Department at Stanford University and author of The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue. Humans began making much better stone tools. They started burying their dead with flowers and seemingly religious tokens, and began creating cave art some 50,000 years ago
"People started having imagination at this time much more than they had earlier," says Dr. Ruhlen. Many scientists think that fully modern human language enabled this "great leap forward." Language enabled abstract thought.
The EHL project is highly controversial: many linguists say that historical languages are highly plastic and cannot be studied beyond an 8,000-year threshold. Languages are constantly changing. And some languages change more than others. Italian, for example, has remained much closer to ancestral Latin than French. Lithuanian has many words that almost exactly match Sanskrit, which was spoken 3,500 years ago. And some language "families" like Afro-asiatic retain words in common even after more than 10,000 years of divergent evolution.
EHL has grouped all the world's languages into 12 linguistic superfamilies. They've tentatively grouped four of these superfamilies, which include languages of Eurasia, North Africa, and some Pacific islands (and languages of the Americas) into one super-superfamily dubbed "Borean." An ancestor to a large share of today's languages, Borean was spoken some 16,000 years ago when glaciers covered much of Europe and North America.
Jason McManus via New Scientist