Speech, stone tool-making and the evolution of language
The ‘technological hypothesis’ proposes that gestural language evolved in early hominins to enable the cultural transmission of stone tool-making skills, with speech appearing later in response to the complex lithic industries of more recent hominins. However, no flintknapping study has assessed the efficiency of speech alone (unassisted by gesture) as a tool-making transmission aid. Here we show that subjects instructed by speech alone underperform in stone tool-making experiments in comparison to subjects instructed through either gesture alone or ‘full language’ (gesture plus speech), and also report lower satisfaction with their received instruction. The results provide evidence that gesture was likely to be selected over speech as a teaching aid in the earliest hominin tool-makers; that speech could not have replaced gesturing as a tool-making teaching aid in later hominins, possibly explaining the functional retention of gesturing in the full language of modern humans; and that speech may have evolved for reasons unrelated to tool-making. We conclude that speech is unlikely to have evolved as tool-making teaching aid superior to gesture, as claimed by the technological hypothesis, and therefore alternative views should be considered. For example, gestural language may have evolved to enable tool-making in earlier hominins, while speech may have later emerged as a response to increased trade and more complex inter- and intra-group interactions in Middle Pleistocene ancestors of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens; or gesture and speech may have evolved in parallel rather than in sequence.