Archive for April, 2008

Evolang Post #5 – d’Errico and Bickerton

There were just two more plenary speakers at the end of the conference and both delivered fascinating and controversial presentations.

The archaeological positions on language evolution are complicated and frequently bitter. Archaeologists are reluctant to speculate on anything that doesn’t fossilise and the emergence of language is embedded into several, broader debates about how humans emerged. Firstly there is a debate about how late or early modern human behaviour emerged. Secondly a debate about when anatomically modern humans emerged, and finally a debate over the geographical pattern of emergence of modern humans (both behaviourally and biologically).

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Elephants Painting?

I’ve had a few emails recently asking about this clip that has been doing the rounds on youtube.

I’m pretty dubious that it represents an elephant truly drawing an abstract image of itself as some sort of therapy. None-the-less it remains fascinating.

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Hear a Neanderthal Talk (and Other Interesting Neanderthal Language Rumblings)

Anthropology.net and New Scientist have recently reported on a couple of developments in the Neanderthal language debate.
Firstly, a new paper is in the works that will cast doubt upon the conclusions of the now famous Neanderthal FOXP2 paper from last year. Krause et al found the same adaptive variation of the language-implicated FOXP2 gene as is found in humans in Neanderthal DNA sequences, and claimed that the this was evidence for FOXP2 as a homologous trait that was present in our common ancestor. Cue endless headlines about how this finding is proof that Neanderthals had language.

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Orangutans and Sir David Attenborough

A lovely clip of Orangutans both tool using and navigating their arboreal environment, from a BBC wildlife documentary.

Evolang Post #4

After this one, there’s two more posts to come on Evolang, where firstly I’ll sum up the remaining plenary speakers, and then sum up the more interesting speakers from the normal sessions. Apologies for the slow posting but ‘tis essay season and I’ve loads of work to do.

As far as Evolang goes I must confess that beer and tapas had diminished my note-taking skills at this point and so some of these sketches might be a little vague, but I’ll try to be as fair and accurate as I can be.

Simon Kirby presented a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of the work being carried out at the LEC in Edinburgh. I better restate my biases in the interests of disclosure. I am one of the vast crowd of ‘Edinburghians’ who made up the largest group at Evolang, but I hope this won’t distort my reporting of their or other people’s ideas.

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Languages Change in Punctuational Bursts

This nice little paper from Science (Vol 319, 2008 ) presents evidence that languages undergo an initial period of strong seperation, where the rate of change is high, and then slow down into a steadier pace of change. They hypothesise that this is due to a cultural need to establish a seperate identity, or as a product of the way we use language to enhance group cohesion in times of cultural upheaval. A nice hypothesis that, if true, would demonstrate the power of cutltural transmission upon language structure. It fits roughly into the same line of argument as Kirby, Hurford, Smith (K) et al.