One theory on the evolution of language is drawn from
the predictable nature of early human artwork

In the 21st century, when language is measured in bytes, not words, it may seem a waste of time to indulge in a new theory about the origins of language. It may even be blasphemous to shatter the popular shibboleth “In the beginning was the Word.” But the simple truth is that in the beginning there were no words, only the hoots of our simian ancestors. How these hoots became articulate words is a question anthropologists have yet to answer completely.

Darwin’s theory of evolution embraces the vision of bipedal, half-human, half-ape creatures with opposable thumbs, either making crude tools or hammering away with them on various objects, including each other. At some point, humans and apes diverged into separate species as a result of mutations and natural selection. Where language is concerned, Darwinian linguists doubt if mutations alone account for human speech, but assume pre-humans used the same language and survival tactics that chimps use today—until emergent humans were provoked into inventing words. In my view, the clues to this mystery lie in the artwork of ancient humans, as well as the artwork of children today.

How did I come to this conclusion? As an artist with an anthropology background, I was a traveling art teacher servicing 17 elementary schools in Washington, DC. A principal asked me why her inner-city students were failing reading, while students in the prosperous suburbs excelled. This observation surprised me since there was little difference in the children’s artwork, which, after all, is a form of communication. As we chatted about the relation between art and the written word, the principal challenged me to improve the reading in her school through art.

Thus, I became a one-woman research unit studying the raw materials produced by kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade small vertebrates in 17 elementary schools. I soon found that the reading breakthrough came when a child’s crayon drawing was labeled with a “word-picture,” a subtle way to introduce printed words. The notion that pictures may have names started a rash of picture-making and demands for labels. To everyone’s amazement, the children copied the labels and learned to write, simultaneously learning to read the words that described their artwork (see Figure 1). Since crayon drawings of the sun, sky, trees, grass, people, and animals dominate child art, the words corresponding to these images were the most relevant words for these “disadvantaged readers,” who, like children worldwide, cannot draw what they don’t know or understand. One educational publishing firm, Addison-Wesley, tested the program and printed seven pre-primers and primers for first and second graders, using the art-oriented words.


A visit to the famous prehistoric caves in France and Spain made me realize that the drawing process was probably just as important for our human and protohominid ancestors. The dimly lit cave interiors and the heroic sizes of superb realistic animals drawn with perspective and sensitivity were truly awe-inspiring. Many caves have recognizable, but crude, portraits of ibex, reindeer, bears, horses, mammoths, and mastodons. But the grand caves of Altamira, Lascaux, and Chauvet have animal portraits with rounded perspective and subtle colors worthy of Delacroix or Rubens, despite the archaic lineage of the artists. In these caves, Cro-Magnons, gradually supplanting the more primitive Neanderthal species, created beautiful and realistic drawings and paintings of the animals they hunted.

[Figure 1: 8-year old in DC learns to add words to label images in his picture]
Figure 1. An 8-year-old in a Washington, DC, school learns to add the words to label the images in his picture.

More amazing to me, though, was discovering a reindeer drawing that could have been created by any seven-year- old student in any American elementary school at Christmas. Not believing my eyes, I sought out other juvenile drawings and found that cave kids had been busy making stiff little animals with lopsided horns and square legs (see Figure 2). Interestingly, upon returning to the tour bus, I discovered that out of a group of artists and budding archaeologists only one other art teacher had spotted the child art.

Apparently, no cave scientists had come near to deducing that cave children drew alongside adults, nor were cave scientists aware they were viewing a universal, developmental art process that has survived for millennia. Historically, anthropologists attributed cave art to a sophisticated society capable of creating myths, mistakenly, I believe, comparing prehistoric cave art to 19th century New Guinea tribal totems. One artist-investigator, Abbé Henri Breuil, who photographed and sketched the Lascaux artwork in 1940, believed the animal portraits to be hunting totems, so he introduced a drawing of a Shaman hidden among a group of animals in Les Trois Frères cave. Unfortunately, today this dubious drawing of a Shaman by a cleric has become a cave art symbol, appearing on covers of books and, alas, ending further speculation. But unlike the superstitious art of the 19th century, where animal figures are exaggerated, cave art emphasizes realism.


Superb as the animal drawings are, they offer no clues to any words in use at the time. No fossilized echoes or figures of speech embedded in amber are concealed in the caves. Since most prehistory experts agree communication by visual images started around 40,000 years ago and the earliest hard evidence of written words doesn’t appear until 6,000 years ago in Sumerian clay tablets, how can this large gap be explained? The gap suggests that humankind has not always had the ability to speak. Simply put, if humans had been speaking for thousands of centuries before the ice ages, wouldn’t writing have appeared earlier?

Paleolithic artists most likely did not need words to draw or survive. But Paleolithic cave art is the first sign of a mental image in the brain being transformed into a tangible visible image on a wall. Apes, in contrast, may be able to picture things in their heads to help them imitate their simian relatives, but they never acquire the symbolic ability to turn internal images into imitative drawings. For tough, outdoor-type Cro-Magnons, creating the resulting animal portraits meant thinking about what animal to draw, how big or small, and what color to use. The process of drawing suggests these early artists had a concept of time (past, present, and future).

A baffled reader might now ask how silent images stimulate audible words. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any relationship between words and pictures, yet both are symbols evoking absent entities. Thus, I suggest an audacious theory about the origins of language: that the enforced stay of Cro-Magnons in caves during the ice ages encouraged the invention of a drawing technology, which, in turn, led to the invention of words. In this scenario, drawing became a popular pastime for the cave-bound. Cave dwellers continued to use simian-type hoots to attract or warn others when hungry for food or sex; but drawings elicit new squeals of surprise and joy. When the squeals associated with particular animals are repeated by one or two other residents they might become the animals’ name! Since pictorial images require no words, yet combinations of images communicate a string of events, art seems a likely prerequisite for sounds to convey these ideas.

A skeptic might now wonder why cave art is necessary in the development of language, when the sight, sounds, and smells of animals also can produce vocal exclamations. This is true. However, wild animals don’t stand still, and their sounds and smells dissipate quickly. Permanent pictures, on the other hand, leave records that can be studied during the long, cold winters.

[Figure 2. Photograph adapted from artwork originally published in 400 Years of Cave Art]
Figure 2. In the Lascaux caves, elaborate drawings of animals are accompanied by cave-child versions. Photograph adapted from artwork initially published in 400 Years of Cave Art..

For these reasons, it seems cave art is the first hard evidence of the existence of a mental image in the brain as we see it being transformed into a tangible visible image on a wall. The mental image supplies the models needed for creating artwork and, eventually, creating words. Images as mental adjuncts to language were first documented 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece, where painting and sculpting were treasured occupations. Aristotle was the first to write about the uses of images, finally deducing that thought is impossible without an image. Following this logic, someone reading the word “bluebird,” for example, either sees the actual word bluebird, or the picture of a blue bird comes into his or her head. In fact, both word and image may appear since both are symbols taking the place of the real bird.

The links between image and language in modern-day children were explored by Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder in the 1930s and 1940s. They found no language organ, but someplace in the brain lies an assemblage of five functions, all of them capable of evoking absent events: the mental image; imitation; imitative play; drawing; and language. All five do not appear until the second year of a child’s life, and all share the same associative and imitative ability.


But studies with apes demonstrate that they must retain images much like human children, as they are capable, for example, of picking which box is concealing the hidden banana. The next question, perhaps, is why are apes incapable of speech? Interestingly, humans and simians are born with the same laryngal machinery, but a human infant’s larynx drops at three months of age, creating a resonating chamber, which makes consonant and vowel sounds possible. Apes speak through the nose and cannot make the same phonetic sounds humans make by using their lips, cheeks, tongue, palate, and teeth.

However, sounds alone do not a language make. Sounds need meaning and signification that describe, distinguish, ask questions, and express tenses. When art empowered humans to associate the drawing with the real object, then speechless humans were able to make an analogy between objects and their associated sounds,a process that eventually led to the first name-sounds.

Cave art served as a reference point for humans, but animal calls have no points of reference since animals are unable to make analogies; their sounds remain instrumental, but never become referential. For example, animals use their voices like a musical instrument, comparable to piano-playing during silent films—loud for danger, staccato for play and joy, low and mellow for courtship. Apes may lead others by the hand, but cannot direct them where to go since they cannot place a picture into a listening mind.

Unlike the animal kingdom, human infants aren’t born speaking. Kittens mew and piglets grunt at birth and continue to do so lifelong, but at birth modern infants only cry. Language in children doesn’t develop until the babbling function emerges, enabling the child to copy the parent’s vocal sounds. Babbling is a critical stage for true speech, but one that chimps do not share. This instinctive monologue of sounds without rhyme or reason seems to require vocal responses and encouragement, though. In the example of Viktor, the “wild boy of Aveyron,” the child raised without human contact never achieved articulate speech.


Cave artists probably started by drawing muscular scribbles on the ground with a branch, the same way modern children use crayons on paper. Repetition allows these scribbles gradually to grow into recognizable schematic figures. When these figures were transferred to cave walls they became permanent records and the first written language—just as children today use their drawings to tell stories long before they learn to read or write the words they need to express their thoughts.

Interestingly, the Paleolithic cave drawings are more complex and realistic than the artwork of much later Neolithic cultures, including Aboriginal Australians and American Indians. The marvelously lifelike animal portraits in Paleolithic caves could have been drawn by Rubens, while the Neolithic drawings dating to a much more recent era look as if they were drawn by a seven-year- old. The explanation for this paradox, in fact, suggests that the cave artists, with their more primitive minds and lack of language, simply needed to make their drawings lifelike. The earliest artists and viewers lacked configurational experience so artists had to keep improving drawings by adding additional lines, colors, and shading until they grew realistic and familiar.

Neolithic cultures, however, tended to use minimized, stick-like silhouettes. These cultures had the advanced intelligence required to condense images and yet retain the model’s essence. Though it’s hard to believe, the realistic pictures in the Paleolithic caves are simply good copies of the real thing. Copying requires only careful observation, fine muscle control, five senses, and a good memory. The more abstract figures seen in Neolithic cultures, in contrast, depict complex, abstract ideas. Speechless Paleoliths needed realism to comprehend and identify the drawings. In contrast, talking Neoliths, accustomed to recognizing the meanings in words and drawings, used art as a form of narrative shorthand, leading eventually to pictographic writing. Neolithic rock paintings have a hunting-narrative content complete with human hunters and arrows, while Paleolithic animal portraits lack narrative content, implying a lack of language. Paleolithic art also suggests artists so intellectually simple that they were incapable of bringing outdoor images indoors, thus accounting for the lack of trees, sun, grass, and other elements on cave walls.

And the exaggeration and distortion of 19th century totems fit into this continuum as well. These exaggerated art forms reflect complex psychological elements, like superstition. Thus, enviable animal characteristics such as the speed of an eagle or the strength of a bear are exaggerated, and thought to be transferred to the human who wears a wooden-mask effigy of the animal.


The Bible contains some amazing coincidences, like timing the Garden of Eden to 6,000 years ago, a date reached by counting back the generations of Adam’s progeny. Not surprisingly, the date coincides with the time of the first written Sumerian tablets. Is there a lesson to be learned from the fact that biblical and cave art’s first words are the names of animals? And the Bible notes that names were the easiest to invent, never indicating any recognition that humankind was capable of inventing language by itself, without divine intervention. Giving our imagination free play, the scenario changes from the Garden of Eden to a crude Paleolithic cave where Adam becomes an ice-age artist assigning names to animal drawings.

Many of the mysteries of how life developed and how early humans developed language may never be solved definitively. Paleontologists are presently checking fossil bones of the neck and mouth in ancient humans, rather than focusing primarily on the brain cavity, in search of clues on the development of language. Despite the fact that soft lingual tissues don’t ossify, modern scientists still insist on bony fossils dating the genesis of language. In ancient caves, the lime-plastered frescoes should be thought of as “art fossils,” and this calcified record considered along with other theories of language development. And linguists, accustomed to thinking of language only in terms of sounds, may want to think about the reasons words were needed, and the mental images and imitative behaviors that probably lie behind the invention of words.

After all, what we know about language development in children today suggests strongly that language can’t exist without the presence of a symbolic function. Cave art, I believe, was the first sign of the presence of a symbolic function, which we know to facilitate both art and language. Thus, if cave art marks the debut of a mature symbolic function, it also may mark the debut of art and articulate language.

[photo of Penny Platt]
Penny Platt (CC ’90) is an art consultant and child-art historian. She is the author of Addison-Wesley Publisher’s Early Reading Program, and a writer for art and reading publications.

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