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When and where did humans develop language? To find out, look deep inside caves, suggests an MIT professor.

More precisely, some specific features of cave art may provide clues about how our symbolic, multifaceted language capabilities evolved, according to a paper co-authored by MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa.

A key to this idea is that cave art is often located in acoustic “hot spots,” where sound echoes strongly, as some scholars have observed. Those drawings are located in deeper, harder-to-access parts of caves, indicating that acoustics was a principal reason for the placement of drawings within caves. The drawings, in turn, may represent the sounds that early humans generated in those spots.

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In the new paper, this convergence of sound and drawing is what the authors call a “cross-modality information transfer,” a convergence of auditory information and visual art that, the authors write, “allowed early humans to enhance their ability to convey symbolic thinking.” The combination of sounds and images is one of the things that characterizes human language today, along with its symbolic aspect and its ability to generate infinite new sentences.

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Cave artists were thus not just drawing impressions of the outdoors at their leisure. Rather, they may have been engaged in a process of communication. “I think it’s very clear that these artists were talking to one another,” Miyagawa says. “It’s a communal effort”. (1)

Sound whirling in a fierce storm.

Snow falling on the rough ground.

Deep inside a cave, a human lies.

Being sick, ready to die.

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Inside that cave, he sees the drawing he drew when he was young.

When the sound of his voice echoed underneath the Earth.

Fearing and being excited for the future.

Now he is silent. But the drawings are still there.

For some people to view, thousands of years from now.

A message no one – besides this man – will ever understand.

A message seemingly lost in the haze of aeons.

Until someone realizes, that this lack of message is the message itself…

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