A team of researchers from Brazil, Japan and the US may have solved the mystery regarding how the evolution of verbal language as used by humans got its start, using the connection between ancient cave art and the acoustic properties of the caves that they are found in. 

The authors of the study posit that there is a link between the acoustic properties of caves that are home to petroglyphs, and the content of the cave art itself, and that this link may have helped early humans develop their ability to convey symbolic thinking to one-another. For instance, in the caves in Lascaux, France, chambers where paintings depicting hoofed animals like bulls and bison are found create sounds that are similar to the beating of hoofs. Conversely, chambers that are more acoustically subdued contain paintings of stealthier animals, such as wild felines, along with dots and handprints. Stalagmites, and stalactites are oftentimes highlighted in paint, and due to their structure can sound like musical instruments when struck.

The researchers call this connection between the caves’ visual art and auditory properties “cross-modality information transfer,” and it may have enhanced early humans’ ability to convey symbolic thinking: one could think of these caves as Paleolithic theaters, with early humans taking advantage of their physical properties to enhance their story-telling abilities. 

This early symbolic thinking that early humans were sharing would likely be the forerunner of what we consider modern language; indeed, the scenes depicted in ancient cave art contain action, objects, and modifications, elements that would evolve into verbs, nouns, and adjectives, respectively, in more contemporary grammar. These ancient depictions are referred to as “fossilized proxies for the expression of full-fledged human linguistic behavior” by the study authors.

The researchers believe that this linguistic evolution may have occurred before Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa, citing the example of 70,000-year-old rock art in Africa as evidence that the seed for the evolution of symbolic thinking began before early man spread into Europe and Asia. This newfound cognitive ability may also have spread quickly, due to the smaller, more mobile populations that humanity was comprised of at the time.

“Cave art was part of the package deal in terms of how Homo sapiens came to have this very high-level cognitive processing,” explains study co-author Shigeru Miyagawa, Ph.D. “You have this very concrete cognitive process that converts an acoustic signal into mental representation and externalizes it as a visual.” 


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