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Language Evolution$
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Morten H. Christiansen and Simon Kirby

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780199244843

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199244843.001.0001

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The Archaeological Evidence of Language Origins: States of Art

The Archaeological Evidence of Language Origins: States of Art

(p.140) 8 The Archaeological Evidence of Language Origins: States of Art
Language Evolution

Iain Davidson

Oxford University Press

This chapter deals with the human use of symbols from the viewpoint of archaeology. It argues that anatomical evidence from skeletal remains contributes little to the understanding of the evolution of language because of the difficulty in determining possible linguistic behaviours from fossilised bones. The archeological record of artefacts may reveal something about the behaviour that produced them. In particular, analyses of ancient art objects provide evidence of symbol use dating back at least 70,000 years. These artefacts indicate sophisticated symbol use that incorporates two key features of language: open-ended productivity and the ability to use symbols to stand for things displaced in time and place. On the other hand, evidence of syntax has proved more elusive in the archaeological record. Symbol use is the first crucial step toward modern human language, with syntax emerging through cultural learning processes that include grammaticalisation and iterated learning across generations.

Keywords:   language, archaeology, symbols, syntax, grammaticalisation, artefacts, fossilised bones, art

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