When did people start using names?

12 July 2016

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Question

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?

Answer

It's time for Question of the Week and this week Lucka Bibic has been looking back 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 enlisted 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 predator, 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 in origin to human language. And birds sing to attract mates. So maybe our ancestors communicated this desire to mate by singing. Which of these is true, a 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 that 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 roles 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?

Comments

I suspect that first names , taken by humans, had to do with natural world. That tradition stayed with humanity. Children were unlikely given names until their 2 or 3rd year, or when they could run. Child mortality was atrociously high. Here an example. Child would be playing with others , imitating adults. Perhaps one had superior running ability. One day the children sorting scraps from post hunt feast. A bigger older child tried to take food or some artifact . The smaller child grabbed the item and ran away. Parents or tribe members witness this and somebody observes that the smaller child was quick witted and quick to react to threat, quick to get away. LIKE FOX. "He runs like fox from wolf pack " observes elder hunter. From that day the smaller boy would be called Running Fox. Boy grows up into a mighty warrior and hunter. Later he becomes tribe's Chief. Chief Running Fox.
A small girl, yet unnamed, finds a bush garden bearing black berries. Though young she knows which berries are good and which ones are toxic. She gorges on black berries until her lips , tongue, and cheeks are covered in black berry goo. She is given a name ,Black-berry. She grows up , and after she bleeds woman's blood, she becomes mate to Running Fox.

Not to nitpick, but multiple times in this article you mention that language was used to warn of a 'prey' nearby. The appropriate term would be a 'predator.' A predator hunts for prey, so unless you meant communicating while hunting (which is something that possibly was used as well), you have it backwards.

I fixed the example I spotted. Thanks for pointing it out; you are quite correct, he should have said "predator". An ironic mistake in an item about language!

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