Question of the Week

When did people start using names?

Tue, 12th Jul 2016

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Kat asked:

Gary Larson cartoon strips always have cavemen named Thak or Og. It got me to wondering- did cavemen have names? When did people start using names?


It’s time for Question of the Week and this week Lucka has been looking back Neanderthal reconstruction in time with this question…

Kat: - Hey, scientists. This is Kat from Kansas City, Missouri. I was reading a Gary Larson comics the other day and noticed all the cavemen had silly names, and it got me wondering, did cavemen even have names? When did human beings start naming themselves?

Lucka - We asked you what you thought on Facebook. Alejandro wrote…

Alejandro - Did you suppose the first name was an insult?

Lucka - And Andrew thinks…

Andrew - I think early humans were given name to their young out of affection rather than necessarily like we do today.

Lucka - To get to the bottom of this caveman mystery, I listed the help of linguist Professor Shigaru Miyagawa from MIT. But first what do we mean by cavemen?

Shigaru - The thing to keep in mind is that the idea of cavemen is for the most part fiction that was created by popular culture. It’s based on things that appear to be real. A lot of things have discovered in caves like paintings and artefacts with symbols. But the image of them hunting alongside dinosaurs for example is a romantic fiction of evolution.

Lucka - Got you. So, let’s step away from the caveman like Fred Flintstone and look instead at our own species, homo sapiens. How did we first start to communicate with each other?

Shigaru - I think a lot of theories actually you could imagine. One theory says that communicated in single words just like monkeys. Some monkeys have a single word system like snake, leopard, and eagle to let the others know that a prey like a leopard is nearby. Another theory which is by Charles Darwin says that pre-humans communicated by singing just like birds. He observed that bird song is the nearest origin to human language. And birds sing to attract mate. So maybe our ancestors communicated this desire to mate by singing. Which of these is true, single word system or singing? Well, we don’t really know because language doesn’t fossilise. Actually, what I think is that both were probably true. Our ancestors communicated in words to warn others of a prey in the vicinity and singing to attract mate.

Lucka - This singing could have been an early framework for things like grammar and the early start of language. But back to the original question, when did names come along?

Shigaru - Human language appeared only recently. Some say about 100,000 years ago. That was around the time the homo sapiens were migrating out of east Africa into the Eurasian continent. They were hunter-gatherers. Once farming became possible around 10,000, maybe 12,000 years ago, you had more fixed rules in a larger community of people. So, you had to come up with a way to distinguish individuals. That’s when you started to assign names. Certainly, the origin of human language in evolution is one of the great mysteries of science.

Lucka - The best we can do without a time machine. Thanks, Shigaro. Next week, we will be scanning the horizon to answer Loot’s question.

Loot - How did the moon get its markings?


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Some animal species have unique callsigns which are used by other members of their species to get their attention. Parrots spring to mind. evan_au, Thu, 9th Jun 2016

A very long time ago. Before writing I'm guessing. Maybe before Homo classification which starts ~2 million years ago. Vocalization would have to have evolved enough to produce many different sounds. So looking at the vocal cords, I think I recall the hyoid bone can give some evidence of when vocal cords became sophisticated enough for name calling. Might be something in the fossil record with that, assuming that bone is recoverable after millions of years. Villi, Thu, 16th Jun 2016

There are two sides of the brain. The left side differentiates data, while the right side of the brain integrates the same data. Like in math differentiation finds the slope of a curve at a given point; specific. While integration finds the area under the curve; generality. Feelings tend to be right brain since a feeling like sad to happy can be induced with endless scenarios. Logic is more left brain since it build from specific premises.

If we gave someone a name like mother, boy, or hunter, these names are not that specific but represent a member of a class of people. These types of names are more a right brain integration; integrate a subset from A to B, since there may be other boys, mothers and hunters in the group. When a general says soldier, stand at attention he speaks to one and all; integrates from A to B. If we used names like Mary or John this is more left brain, since it represents the slope of many people, at a very specific point.

The earliest pre-humans (before civilization) would have been in touch with their natural instincts, Natural instincts integrate one with nature. If there were names, these would have been integral; wise old man, witch doctor. Differential thinking or left brain thinking would have come later, and be more timed to the beginning of civilization, when natural instinct starts to become repressed. 

Humans before civilization had stone tools, fire and some other inventions. But this was spread over tens of thousands of years. Differential thinking was lean; sporadic. With the formation of civilization all types of changes and inventions appear, showing a greater sense of differential thinking.

Names were magical, in the beginning, since it could help the brain focus in a differential way. The first specific names may have been reserved for the gods and elders. Even today mothers and entertainers give names to endow their child or themselves with prestige or uniqueness. The fable of Rumpelstiltskin shows the importance of names. If the poor miller; integral name, could guess the name of the Rumpelstiltskin; differential, he could gain power to turn straw into gold.

puppypower, Sat, 18th Jun 2016

The problem here is that you seem to be talking utter cobblers.
Feel free to prove me wrong by actually coming up with some evidence.
However since it has nothing to do with when people started using names, please try to justify yourself in another thread- or, at least, don't try to do it here. Bored chemist, Mon, 20th Jun 2016

Parrots aren't people 

I kid, I kid 

But best answer I could give to the OP would be twofold.  First part, is that we'll never be able to come close to even a give or take answer, since it would've been long before writing existed so there would be no historical record.  So in a technical sense, the only right answer is "We have no friggin idea" lol.

But if I had to wager a guess?  I'd say it would've began as soon as two things were present:  First, the ability of the vocal chords to produce more than just the most basic of sounds, and the second requirement would be as soon as we began to congregate in groups more than just our immediate family, as soon as even a basic social component was present, say 2 or more families existing together daily, but I'd probably say more like as soon as 3 or more families would be found to be living together on a normal everyday basis.

I say that cause of the logic associated with why naming would've been necessary.  It would be due to our need to work together on things, or need for someone's attention, and specifically that person's attention.  In a one family unit, or even two family unit, at any given time if another's attention was needed by a prehistoric man or woman, the chances are at that given moment only one or two others might be in the vicinity, so a simple grunt, or "Og, OG!!" would suffice.  No specific distinction would be necessary.  Only once at any given time on a frequent basis the condition was present (since if it was only here or there the condition was found it might not be enough to spark one to think "Hmmmm, this is annoying, I need to give them names" etc) , would there be a need for a long term call sign for specific individuals. 

But I'll actually already revise my own initial statement and throw in a possible third condition; which would be once our intellect started becoming creative and complex enough to have specialized abilities; to have things that as individuals we did differently or different levels of knowledge, experience and learning from one another etc.  The reason I throw that potential condition in there is because not only would the second condition above seem to be necessary; that at any given time enough had to be present where a simple "Og!!!" wouldn't yield the right person's attention, but it would also seem to need to matter that a specific person's attention would even be required!... Meaning, that the specific person, and only that person, would be the one who could attend to my needs.  If I tripped and hurt myself, and 10 people were around, I could shout "Og!!  OG!!!", and it would matter not to me who attended to me.  But if one of the 10 were experienced with ancient healing, I might want to ensure that it was their attention that was given.  So I would think that maybe this condition would need to be necessary as well; that we were at least advanced enough to have individual skills and knowledge that was distinctfully different than another's.

So at whatever point in time the first 2, and possibly all 3 conditions were present on a frequent enough basis, is where I'd consider the need for names to have begun.

But again, the only real right answer is "We have no friggin idea!" IAMREALITY, Tue, 28th Jun 2016

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