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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Human language arose in Africa

Update 2/12
This data has since been disputed by Michael Cysouw and Steven Moran from Ludwig Maximilian University and Dan Dediu from the Max Planck Institute.  They claim that Atkinson's conclusions are based on faulty methodology and artifacts.

It’s well established that the human species as we know it today evolved in Africa and migrated out across the world some 200,000 years ago. However, it has never been clear exactly when and where hominids developed the gift of language. According to a study by Quentin Atkinson of the Universities of Auckland and Oxford, speech developed before that great migration.
Today, every human culture has language, many of which are astoundingly, or should I say incomprehensibly, different from one another. Did such languages arise totally independently after humans left Africa, or are all languages ‘evolved’ from an African predecessor? Atkinson used the same sort of methods to trace the origins of languages as have been used to follow biological evolution. He sampled the phonemes (roughly, verbal sounds) used in 504 different languages around the worlds and found that the pattern of variation in phonemes exactly matched the pattern of genetic diversity in humans.
 Africans have the greatest variation in both phonemes and DNA, the more recently settled areas (Europe and Asia) have more moderate variation in both, and the fewest phonemes and least genetic diversity were found in South America and on Pacific islands.

Language Map of the World
Map courtesy of used with permission.

This strongly suggests that language, like humans themselves, originated in Africa. A subset of those humans left Africa, taking their local language with them. As humans spread throughout the world, they continued to take only the particular phonemes they needed to each new location. When they reached islands such as Hawaii, for example, their total phonemic inventory had been whittled down to just over a dozen.