The cognitive revolution

Hyoid Bone
Kebara Cave
Middle Paleolithic Period
Tel Aviv University

Many forms of life can be said to have a language that enables them to communicate. Animals can share information connected to their immediate reality — about sources of food, reproduction, or danger — which allows them to survive. Human language, however, is more than a functional tool with survival value: it incorporates symbols and rules, allowing us to share abstract ideas and concepts.

The origin of the development of human language, which eventually brought about what is known as the Cognitive Revolution, remains a controversial subject that raises more questions than it provides answers. It is generally accepted that the ability to speak was shared already some 100,000 years ago by Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, and that it is probably an innate, built-in ability. Evidence of this ability has not only been found in the shape and structure of the mouth and throat as well as in the brain of both species, but also in archaeological remains indicating that early Homo sapiens engaged in culture and art — activities that derive directly from this capability.

Among the enormous benefits of human language are the possibility to discuss things that do not exist or cannot be seen, such as the past or the future; to teach and pass on symbols and ideas related to a specific culture; to speak about other people, promote social relationships, and build complex social structures; to weave myths, tell stories, record events, and form an individual and a collective memory. Human language has enabled us to create a "fictive reality" — an imagined realm that makes it possible for very large numbers of people (who do not necessarily inhabit the same time or space) to cooperate and share common ideas. This is the basic condition that allowed for the shaping of religions and the creation of beliefs. The ability to talk turned Homo sapiens into rulers of the Universe. The rest is history…