Section 1


Outline of Human Phylogeny

Evolutionary Trees
and DNA

Brain Evolution

Hand and Bipedality

Section 2
Social and socio-
cultural systems

Primate societies

Social relations and the evolution of culture

Social relations, communication and cognition

Human socio-cultural patterns

Tools and symbolic behaviour

Palaeolithic Art

Contemporary hunter-gatherer art

Section 3
Ontogeny and symbolism

Editorial Introduction: Ontogeny & Phylogeny

The role of ontogenesis

Brain, cognition, and language

Early interaction and cognitive skills

Language and thought

Theories of symbolization
and development

Children's drawings and the evolution of art

Section 4
Language systems

Spoken language and
sign language

The gestural primacy hypothesis

Comparative cognition

Animal language and cognition

Language acquisition


The prehistory of grammar

Writing systems


Links Policy

Relevant Links

A history of the study of language origins and the gestural primacy hypothesis

Gordon W. Hewes

Speculative writings on language origins seem mainly to be confined, until very recently, to the Classical and Judaeo-Christian West. Until the Enlightenment nearly everything that was said about language origins in the West proceeded from the assumption that language began with Adam in the Garden of Eden.

In the eighteenth century a gestural origin for language was proposed by several writers, and some thought that apes might have a capacity for language. Renewed interest in these ideas developed in the mid-twentieth century, with systematic studies of human sign-languages, and then experiments to teach Great Apes visual languages.

The modern argument for gestural primacy in language origins draws on several lines of evidence, including the following. Sound is of questionable suitability as the original basis for language, given the greater creative capacity and open-endedness of higher primate manual and digital operations. Regular tool-using in hominids probably evolved before vocal language, and the human brain's left-lateralization for speech could have been tacked on to a previous specialization for predominantly right-handed gestural language and precise sequences of manual manipulations. In relatively simple contexts gestural communication has the distinct advantage of greater transparency and ease of communication.

It is speculated that with increasing manual preoccupations proto-speech developed out of mouth-gestures patterned after hand gestures and combined with vocalizations. Now the development of more abstract conceptual thinking was possible, given that gestural language suffers from proneness to commit the logical fallacy of misplaced concreteness. More recently the invention and diffusion of phonemicized speech acted as the principal stimulus for what we recognize as the cultural revolution of the Upper Palaeolithic. The basic advantage of a small set of phonemic units lies in their cognitive indexical function, their facilitation of storage and rapid retrieval of information from an increasingly larger mental lexicon [Eds].

For a recent view see M. Corballis (1999) The gestural origins of language. American Scientist, 87: 138-145.


Speculative scenarios can serve as a framework for understanding the events that might have occurred in the evolution of human language. In this scheme, simple gestures first anticipated more complex forms of communication about 6 or 7 million years ago, shortly after the human line diverged from the great apes. At this stage, vocalizations served only as emotional cries and alarm calls. By about 5 million years ago, with the advent of bipedalism, a more sophisticated form of gesturing involving hand signals may have evolved among the early hominids that we now recognize as Australopithecus. About 2 million years ago, in association with the increasing brain size of the genus Homo, hand gestures became fully syntactic, but vocalizations also became prominent. It may have been only 100,000 years ago that Homo sapiens switched to speech as its primary means of communication, with gestures now playing a secondary role. In modern times, the development of telecommunication has permitted the routine use of spoken language in the complete absence of hand gestures. Even so, many people find themselves gesturing when they speak on the telephone.

Caption and figure Copyright © American Scientist.