How did people talk in the Stone Age? A kid of 8 years old asked, in London, United Kingdom. *Curious Kids is a series on The Conversation where experts answer questions kids have about the world.
The Stone Age refers to a time in the distant past. It started about 3 million years ago and lasted until about 40,000 years ago. It is so called because during that time our distant ancestors made their tools out of stones.
Humans like us, the species Homo sapiens, appeared long after the beginning of the Stone Age, only about 200,000 years ago.
When did it start?
The Stone Age began when various species of apes began to make simple tools. They did this by cutting sharp pieces of stone from larger pieces of rock.
These apes stood partially upright when they walked, and that meant their hands were free to do things, like make tools. These early upright creatures had small brains, not unlike the brain of a chimpanzee, and they did not speak. Other apes that walked upright came later in the Stone Age. They have been given names such as Homo habilis (“handyman” man) or Homo erectus (upright man).
These species lived in Africa around 1 to 2 million years ago, long before people like us existed. They had larger brains than the earliest upright apes, but their brains were still smaller than ours. They were not as smart as us and they did not talk, even if they had made sounds.
About 400,000 years ago, 3 species that had much larger brains than the earliest upright apes lived at about the same time. These were called Neanderthals, Denisovans and an early form of the species Homo sapiens – our ancestors.
Neanderthals and Denisovans lived outside of Africa in the part of the world known as Eurasia, which includes Europe. Little is known about the Denisovans, but about 100,000 years ago, Neanderthals had wooden spears and some simple tools made from the bones of animals such as deer, in addition to their stone tools.
Some people think that because of their large brains and their ability to make tools other than stone, Neanderthals could talk. But this is just a guess. The last of the Neanderthals died about 40,000 years ago.
People like us
The first humans lived in Africa. About 200,000 years ago, early Homo sapiens had evolved into what we now call modern humans. These modern humans were just as intelligent as we are today, and they could talk using language just like we do today. “Homo sapiens” means “wise humans”. Later in the Stone Age, around 60,000 years ago, people traveled out of Africa and eventually spread to the rest of the world.
Painting in a cave
In the beginning, even our Homo sapiens ancestors only made tools out of stones, but having the ability to speak, they probably used their language to teach (their knowledge) to each other. Over time, they learned to make different types of tools with stones, wood, bones, and leather.
How the genetic footprint of Neanderthals influences our daily lives
They had clothes, shoes, and made shelters, and they hunted together for food. 40,000 years ago, and possibly even earlier, modern humans drew images on cave walls. There would be far fewer different languages in the Stone Age than there are today. But the languages that did exist would have been like our modern languages.
People would have spoken in sentences with nouns and verbs, even though the words they used would have been different, just as, say, Japanese words are different from English or French words.
Speaking different languages
The languages would have been different between the tribes. People may have found it difficult to talk to someone from another tribe, just like when we go on vacation to another country, sometimes we have a hard time understanding the language. Languages would have had fewer words than we do today because they didn’t need words for things like televisions, cars, or computers.
But like us, modern humans 200,000 years ago would have counted things. They would have had words for “mother” and “father” or “sister” and “brother”. They would have had names for animals and plants, they would have been able to make plans, say “please” and “thank you”, and they would have had names for each other.
Early modern humans probably talked about a lot of the same things we talk about: what to eat, who their friends were.
How did the last Neanderthals live, and why do they have more in common with modern humans than you think?
The parents would have talked about their children and the children would have played with each other, probably talking all the time just as children do today. They would also have sung songs among themselves. They may have been Stone Age people, but they were modern when it came to speaking.