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Chimpanzee communication, cooking, and the evolution of human language

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Explaining how and why language evolved in the human lineage remains a difficult and unsolved puzzle. Comparative study of communication in other species provides important insights into likely precursors and constraints for language evolution. Here I discuss recent work on the communication of chimpanzees, and draw attention to a currently neglected possibility for the origin of cortical control over vocal production. Recent and ongoing work demonstrates that in chimpanzees, production of vocalizations depends on factors in the social and ecological contexts. However, chimpanzees (like other nonhuman primates) appear to have extremely limited intentional control over the acoustic structure of their vocalizations. In one promising hypothesis, Deacon (1997) proposed that in the human lineage, increased cortical control over vocal production emerged as a byproduct of an increase in the relative size of the prefrontal cortex, which increased the number of axons projecting to the brainstem centers that control vocal tract movements. Increasing the size of the prefrontal cortex and other brain areas is generally recognized to require an increase in energy to fuel these expensive tissues. Deacon and other recent writers on language evolution argue that an increase in meat eating is the likely source of this fuel. While meat is energetically dense, it suffers from drawbacks as a primary source of increased energy, mainly because it is an unreliable windfall food, even in modern human foragers. An important and more reliable likely source of increased energy has been neglected in the language evolution literature: cooking and other pre-ingestion processing of food. I argue that the increased energy made available by cooking likely played a key role in the origin of cortical control over vocal production, and encourage efforts to test this hypothesis.

This talk is part of the King's Occasional Lectures series.

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