Language came first, for obvious reasons. For one, it is instinctive for both humans and the lower animals to communicate, even creatures as far down the scale as ants; or even a human child reared with no experience of human culture. Recent research delineated, for example, the elaborate communication system employed by ants. One ant-scout finds some scattered sugar in your kitchen one day and easily communicates news of this feast to the others. Soon your countertop swarms with ants. It’s instinct. Culture, on the other hand, implies being part of a group in which the members are free to act by individual choice. The separate “pieces” of culture – the urge to vocalize or a sense of rhythm, or the urge to gather food or to mate – are for sure based on instinct. But the culture-building sharing of values and resources and customs and all the rest of what makes up “culture” could never have started in the first place if some means of communication had not been already been established. Language had to come first.
In mankind’s earliest evolutionary period there must have been mere gestures and facial expressions and yells and grunts similar to what researchers observe in the great apes. But that is language. That is communication. Then a cohesive true culture can but won’t necessarily form. More accurate, perhaps, is to say that as human language develops enculturation occurs, but again, this means language had to be the first step in its development – not the result.
Wikipedia defining language:
…a system of visual, auditory, or tactile symbols of communication and the rules used to manipulate them. [Note: The important word here is “communication.” There must be somebody or something, even if only the imagined wind-god of a primitive, to communicate with. This then leads on to the formation of a specific culture.] www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rlz=1T4GGIH_enUS267US270&q=define%3alanguage
Wikipedia defining culture:
…patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance. [Note: “Symbolic structures” means language but not only what we usually mean by language; see definition above. In other words, Wikipedia is saying language and culture can, not must, develop in tandem, but does not address which must have come first.] www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=define%3Aculture
We see, then, that language is not only spoken and written words or yells and grunts, but also visually-observed gestures and sign language; even what’s communicated by the sense of touch as with Braille, or how patting a baby conveys love and safety. It also includes symbols such as the cross or the swastika and hilltop smoke signals. All these can carry very specific messages. Even a caveman’s yell, not yet a word but a mere instinctive and explosive vocalization, would have been early language, for it would have communicated fear, urgency, or rage by mere tone and volume and pitch.
Or consider the case of a human baby, sadly lost by its parents but adopted and raised by a wolf-pack, growing up never to see a human. Such a case was documented in France around 1500. Did this child develop language or any aspects of human culture? He did vocalize though no one could decipher what he was saying, for to vocalize, as said before, is instinct. The boy never could be taught the language of his rescuers, but he certainly did continue trying to express himself. This we do even if we live alone on a desert island and must talk to only the wind and the stars. It is not necessary to be part of a culture to attempt at least some form of language. (For some interesting reading on the many children raised by wild animals, do a search for “feral children.”)
It is true that after what we call culture has come into being it influences and constantly changes language, and is changed by it.
Culture, unlike the urge to make sounds with our voices, exists only as a function of group behavior. No group from the beginning of time has been able to maintain cohesion without communication among its members. Just ask anyone trying to run a business or even the smallest community organization! Primitive man’s earliest signing and facial expressions and vocalizations – his language – would gradually have developed standardized meanings among all the members of his group. Evolution rewarded this. This we came to call language, and it had survival value. It made it easier to cooperate in hunting large animals for food and skins or kill enemies. The stage was then set for culture to arise; not before.
Therefore, beyond a doubt, language leads to the formation of a specific culture but is a necessary prior condition. Language must-must-must exist first.