Could pre-hominids speak? ‘Lucy’s baby’ says ‘maybe’ and ‘sort of’

Hello everyone,

When scientists announced a few weeks ago that the common ancestor tongue of many European and Indian languages was first spoken in the area that is now Turkey rather than near the Baltic Sea, many people asked whether I and my cohorts could speak.

That’s a complicated question. To paraphrase a former president who gave an amazing speech last night at the Democratic National Convention, it depends what you mean by “speak.” (Or on what is is).

Did we have a complete language with syntax, grammar and parts of speech?  Probably not, if I understand those terms correctly. Could we communicate with different sounds and tones, much like birds could? Yes, most likely we could.

De­scribed as the skull of an Aus­tra­lo­pi­the­cus afa­ren­sis ba­by, this meas­ures about 12 cm (5 inches) from the bot­tom of the chin to the top of the head ver­ti­cal­ly. (Cour­te­sy Ze­re­se­nay Al­em­seged; © Au­tho­r­i­ty for Re­search and Con­ser­va­tion of Cul­tur­al He­r­i­ta­ges).

I say most likely because I don’t clearly remember just how we did it. Do you know how your feet bend and arch to enable you to walk? Probably not, unless you’ve studied anatomy and physiology. In the same way, with my simpler brain and fewer reasons to speak, I paid little attention to it.

But based on what your scientists have discovered, by the time I came along, some form of primitive communication through voice was possible. This information comes from archeological discoveries that some have dubbed “Lucy’s Baby.” She was not my child, but a toddler who lived about a 100,000 years before I did, and whose bones suggest she might be asking for donuts for breakfast if she was alive today.

Called the Dikika child, probably about 3 years old, she was found in Ethiopia, close to my home, and her skeleton was more complete than mine, with many interesting bones that told scientists about her life. Like mine, Dikika’s bones were protected by the sand of the Awash River, and found not far from my home of Hadar.

The bones of one of our older ancestors, Ardi, who lived 4.4 million years ago, were also protected by the Awash. Her bones were found in 2009, 45 miles away. She was taller and heavier than I was, and walked upright, but still had feet that allowed her to scamper easily up trees. That would have been fun.

The most interesting clue regarding the ability to speak at the time Dikiti lived was a tiny hyoid bone found as part of her skeleton, a bone that many scientists say is the crucial structure that allows speech.

Just as discoveries of hyoid bones among Neanderthal bones opened the door to the possibility that they could speak, this bone at least shows that evolution towards speech had come a long way by the time I was born.

Not all scientists agree on the importance of the hyoid bone for speech. Some question whether the link between the hyoid bone and speech is real. The scientist who found Dikika is among the doubters. However, he does believe the discovery of this bone is important because it suggests that our species, afarensis, had large laryngeal air sacs and thus, probably a voice box similar to those of chimps.

People who aren’t scientists but like to speculate about these things go back and forth on what this all means. They say that we didn’t hunt so we didn’t need to talk with each other about strategy. On the other hand, they say that even if we didn’t have language or the hyoid bone doesn’t matter, we could make mouth sounds like the modern day !Kung language or use tones like birds to communicate.

A bigger question – which came first, thought or speech – will have to wait for another day.

– Lucy of Hadar