English research analyzed brain images of humans and primates to understand the origin of our communication – and the results were surprising.
Researchers at Newcastle University in England have found that the origin of human language is older than previously thought. This type of communication was believed to have appeared about 5 million years ago, with an ancestor common to humans and monkeys. The new study indicates, however, that the evolutionary origin of our language goes back at least 20 million years.
To reach this conclusion, neuroscientists used brain imaging techniques to compare primate and human brains. “It is like finding a new fossil of a long lost ancestor. It is also exciting that there may be an older origin yet to be discovered still,” says Chris Petkov, one of the study’s authors, in a note.
The research, published in the scientific journal Nature Neuroscience, examined auditory regions and brain pathways in humans, monkeys, and hominoid primates. Scientists have discovered a segment of language in the human brain that connects the auditory cortex to the regions of the frontal lobe – where important speech and language processes occur. The auditory pathway was also present in non-human primates, indicating that this brain network is the evolutionary basis of auditory cognition and vocal communication.
“We predicted but could not know for sure whether the human language pathway may have had an evolutionary basis in the auditory system of nonhuman primates,” said Petkov. “I admit we were astounded to see a similar pathway hiding in plain sight within the auditory system of nonhuman primates.”
Another important discovery of the research was about the unique characteristics of the human brain. In the evolutionary process, the right hemisphere seems to have diverged to involve non-auditory parts of the brain.
“This discovery has tremendous potential for understanding which aspects of human auditory cognition and language can be studied with animal models in ways not possible with humans and apes,” said the study’s senior author, Professor Timothy Griffiths. “The study has already inspired new research underway including with neurology patients.”