Debating which came first, language or culture, is much like debating whether the chicken or the egg came first. You can neither have the chicken without the egg, nor can you have the egg without the chicken, they are dependent on one another for existence. All of this depends of course on your definition of language. If you believe that language is the ability to communicate and create a function of understanding between two individuals by any means possible, then undoubtedly I believe that language came first. However, if you believe language to be the spoken word, then I would have to conclude that culture came first.
I believe answers can be found in the discovery of a young Australopithecus Afarensis child discovered by Zeresenay Alemseged in December of 2000, in the hot sands of Dikika, Ethiopia. This small child has been dubbed the Dikika Baby or Lucy’s baby. This small child, a treasure of evolutionary data, is one of the most meaningful discoveries in archeology within the resent past. Her voice at just three years of age was silenced 3.3 million years ago but her tiny body is saying plenty now. (National Geographic, Nov 2006)
The Dikika baby has a key relevant role to be played in this discussion. Zeremsenay found something very unique in the Dikika Baby, he found a rare example of a hyoid bone, a bone that later became crucial to human speech. The hyoid bone is in the neck and allows for more motion of the muscles to create a wider variety of vocal sound. (Fredric Pg103) However, within the neck of the Dikika Baby’s fossil, Zeresenay also found evidence of air sacs that are still found in the gorilla autonomy today, which gives insight that the creation of human language happened sometime between modern humans and 3.3 million years ago.
Roger brown a psychologist from Harvard in 1952 argued that it is language that makes life experiences accumulative, and that within generations, reason can pry humanity loose from nature. (Linden, pg 35) If that is the case than it is within the Dikika’s small body that we capture a moment of evolutionary change that holds the key to the advancement of our history and social heredity.
Some Scientist argues that the development of language itself rests on a little toe. With the advancement of upright walking, our ancestors lost the useful opposable toes that were used to grip onto mothers at an early age. With the loss of the ability to cling to its mother, an added strain would have been put on the mother to continually hold the baby. This would have made foraging for food and other necessities much harder. It is theorized that language was developed from a method called “motherese”, which are the sounds a mother might make to comfort her baby when she had to set it down. (National Geographic Nov 2006) On this same reasoning as a means of survival, women might have needed to rely on others for food and protection while tending to their babies. This would have strengthened social bonds and could be a precursor to human culture.
While it is hard to find any solid answers in this debate even from a science perspective we must not lose sight of the most important thing, Humanity. With either of these scenarios it is through love, compassion and kindness that the advancement of our species occurred. I don’t think the relevant question is which came first, culture or language, but rather, What exactly does it mean to be human?
Sloan, Christopher P. November 2006 Meet the Dikika Baby, A three year old from the dawn of Humanity, National Geographic.
Linden, Eugene, Apes, Men, and Language. 1970 The University of Chicago Toronto and Vancouver
Fredric, Donald. Harris Noris, The Anatomy and Physiology of the Mammalian Larynx Cambridge University Press.