I would like to piece together a picture for a blog article (in essence) of what the state of the world was in the "hunter gatherer stage" just before the origin of agriculture. I would like to have a better understanding of the kind of language that could have existed say between 40 thousand years ago and 10 thousand years ago, roughly speaking.

This Timeline of prehistory says:

  • ~120,000 years ago: possibly the earliest evidence of use of symbols etched onto bone.
  • 28,000–24,000 years ago: oldest known pottery
  • 20,000 years ago: Kebaran culture in the Levant. The Kebaran is the last Upper Paleolithic phase of the Levant. Kebaran stone tool assemblages are characterized by small, geometric microliths, and are thought to have lacked the specialized grinders and pounders found in later Near Eastern cultures. Small stone tools called microliths and retouched bladelets can be found for the first time. The microliths of this culture period differ greatly from the Aurignacian artifacts.
  • 18,000 years ago: The Magdalenian culture appears in Europe. They are responsible for some of the most complex and famous artistic traditions of Ice Age Europe, creating the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira, as well as numerous carvings in ivory and stone.
  • 18,000–12,000 years ago: Though estimations vary widely, it is believed by scholars that Afro-Asiatic was spoken as a single language around this time period.

So Afro-asiatic is the earliest I have so far found about theories of languages before proto-indo European, which is more around the 4000 BCE timeframe. So to have a full language by 18kya, that means that language generally might have occurred even earlier. What are the theories / research / resources on language evolution or the state of spoken language around or before this era?

From another angle, the vocal tract evolution angle, according to articles such as this (and others), the vocal tract might have been fully anatomically modern by 50kya, but I have seen people theorizing about producing sounds and such 100's of k years before that.

So while I am still going to have to invest a lot of time researching all the hundreds of cultures throughout the Levant and Europe (following the path out of Africa), I am curious what capabilities and possibilities in terms of spoken language existed in the time of the hunter gatherers of the Levant and northern Europe (I am English/Irish, so I am also mainly trying to better understand my ancestry). It sounds like the British area was only populated about 40kya:

The earliest evidence for modern humans in North West Europe is a jawbone discovered in England at Kents Cavern in 1927, which was re-dated in 2011 to between 41,000 and 44,000 years old.... The climatic deterioration which culminated in the Last Glacial Maximum, between about 26,500 and 19,000–20,000 years ago,[17] drove humans out of Britain, and there is no evidence of occupation for around 18,000 years after c.33,000 years BP.[18] Sites such as Cathole Cave in Swansea County dated at 14,500BP.

So it sounds like there was a gap, and then they returned to the area around 12kya. Then the agriculturalists from the Levant and other nearby areas migrated there around 10kya and merged with the society to make them eventually agriculturalist (ballpark).


This leads me to my main question:

What was the state of spoken language 40kya - 10kya? What do we know, what is hypothesized, what research should I look into?

If I may ask for more, I would like to also ask for sources I can look into on (perhaps in the comments):

  • Vocal capability evolution.
  • How language moved from Africa-ish northward, tracing how the "language technology" could have evolved (research and theories). I don't need to know every change and permutation of language, but I would like to know "yes, the hunter gatherers of northern europe probably spoke a language derived from the afro-asiatic languages and from the Levant" sort of thing, so I can better connect the dots.

Most research I've seen so far has a sharp cutoff at the proto-indo-European language, but it must extend far beyond that in the past. How far, I don't know, I would like to know.

  • 5
    We know nothing about the state of spoken language 40kya. Except that there was spoken language, no doubt many languages because many groups and many species. Which brings up the restriction to H sapiens; it's clear our precursors had language as well, and we know even less about that than we do about H sap language at 40kya.
    – jlawler
    Sep 30 at 20:10
  • 1
    Well if not 40kya, then as far back as theory can take us.
    – Lance
    Sep 30 at 20:19
  • About a million years is as far as theory takes us, which is entirely too far to go without data, and we have no data on languages that died before about 8 kya. Anything else, including reconstructions, is theory, not data.
    – jlawler
    Oct 1 at 16:08
  • Ah, and there was a catastrophic event around 39k years ago in the Mediterranean region: The phlegreian fiels, a supervolcano, erupted and depopulated Italy Oct 1 at 19:21

1 Answer 1


There is no controversy over the existence of the contemporary language faculty as recently as 40 Kya, though we should omit speculations about persistence of Neanderthals and their language capacity after that date. We may reasonably assume that there were such language-speaking humans in Europe and the Levant at that time, and there are no reasonable conclusions about the descendants of those individuals that are more specific than "perhaps these are ancestors of some of the people living there now". There is no specific evidence that points to a long-lost ancestoral language from that era which isn't equally consistent with the alternative hypothesis "it's just a coincidence". When we move into the 10 Kya realm, we are in the realm of (some) credible hypotheses connected to extant languages, for example Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo or Afro-Asiatic, or Uralic if you aren't too strict with geographical boundaries.

The "theoretical" problem with making claims to the effect that a given proto-language was spoken in a place at a certain time is the lack of evidence. Ehret believes (to some extent, I don't know how strongly) that Proto-Afro-Asiatic was spoken somewhere around the cataracts of the Nile 10 Kya or so, and he offers a combination of linguistic and archeological evidence in support. I sort of recommend his book History and the Testimony of Language to see what kinds of arguments he sets forth. I don't blindly accept his claims, but aside from the null hypothesis ("we can't really say for sure"), his claims are the best on the market, and they don't go back as far as you are looking.

  • Related follow-up question, theories of the evolution of music?
    – Lance
    Oct 1 at 22:56
  • In my related question I point out how Native Americans have robust languages, and they diverged from Africa at least 120kya it seems. So how could language have not existed before 120kya is what I'm wondering now... It doesn't seem possible to evolve multiple times, but perhaps they had a memory of the fact that you can build a language from words, and from that fact it was invented over and over again after its "discovery" in Africa (I am imagining).
    – Lance
    Oct 1 at 22:58
  • 7
    Your Native American time-frame is overly generous. The problem is that even if some H. sap. left Africa that long ago, it does not follow that all non-African people left Africa that long ago. An alternative is "then they died out, and were eventually replaced by new immigrants 40kya". The presumption of unity / singularity ("their own style of music", not "styles") is a bit of a problem. To complicate matters, the Divje Babe flute is probably a Neanderthal flute. Still, this does bear on the evolution of a faculty that includes language.
    – user6726
    Oct 1 at 23:12
  • I assume you know this, but the question of whether the Divje Babe bone is actually a flute is very controversial.
    – Tom
    Oct 2 at 8:49

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