Was Africa The Birthplace Of Modern Language?

A new study points to Africa as the sole birthplace of modern language, and phonemes — the distinct sounds of consonants, vowels and tones — as the key to how language expanded around the world.

It’s an interesting finding because “it could help explain how the first spoken language emerged, spread and contributed to the evolutionary success of the human species,” as the The Wall Street Journal notes.

Quentin D. Atkinson, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and author of the study published in the journal Science last week, traced the evolutionary origin of language to sub-Saharan Africa tracking the use of phonemes in a sample of 504 out of the approximately 6,000 modern languages in use today.

Atkinson found that dialects containing the most phonemes are spoken in Africa, while those with the fewest are spoken in South America and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Think of it this way: English has about 45 phonemes, some African dialects have twice as many, and Hawaiian has 13.

The “Out of Africa” hypothesis

Atkinson’s findings dovetail with evidence that Africa is also the birthplace of modern humans, and what’s known as the “out of Africa” hypothesis: that about 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, modern humans scattered and colonized the rest of the world.

“Just as geneticists see a decline in genetic diversity with such diversity decreasing as you move away from Africa, language diversity shows a similar decline,” Atkinson said in a news release. “It seems like the obvious explanation is that people carried language – along with their genes – with them as they expanded out of Africa,” he continued.

Did language lead to colonizing the world?

Atkinson’s study suggests that complex language was a key cultural innovation and one of the earliest archaeological symbols of modern human culture — and one that led to colonization of the world.

“Modern humans are just one, big genetic family with a single common ancestor,” Atkinson said. “One of the things I like about these results is that, to the extent that language is an identity, we all seem to be part of one, big cultural family as well.”

How far back can scientists trace language?

Atkinson’s study is not without controversy. As the New York Times pointed out:

The detection of such an ancient signal in language is surprising. Because words change so rapidly, many linguists think languages cannot be traced very far back in time. The oldest language tree so far reconstructed, that of the Indo-European family, which includes English, goes back 9,000 years at most.

In fact, linguists tend to dismiss any claims to have found traces of language older than 10,000 years, “but this paper comes closest to convincing me that this type of research is possible,” Martin Haspelmath, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany said in an interview with the Times.

Another linguist, Donald A. Ringe of the University of Pennsylvania, told the Times, “It’s too early to tell if Atkinson’s idea is correct, but if so, it’s one of the most interesting articles in historical linguistics that I’ve seen in a decade.”


Photo courtesy of juhansonin via Flickr


William C
William C2 months ago

Thanks for the article.

W. C
W. C2 months ago

Thank you.

William Y.
William Y6 years ago

@ James L. No, only that there was no formal language more than 10,000 years ago.

Each of the language families were formalized in different areas, whether there is any total common ground is what is in question. Thus was there any similarity in whatever sounds made by humans as they migrated around the planet or did this skill come later.

Despina V.
Despina Vekris6 years ago

Always thought it was Greece

James L.

Language only goes back 10 thousand years? Nonsense! People colonized America at least 13 thousand years ago. That guy trying to say they couldn't talk?

Carole Cherne
Carole Cherne6 years ago

Very interesting, thank you. I am going to do further research, since this is a topic of great interest to me.

Lynnette Bower
Lynnette Bower6 years ago

If there is a biblical god he is not infallible. Creation of the human race is evidence of that. And yes I do understand that includes me as well.

ana p.
ana p6 years ago


Nelson B.
Nelson Baker6 years ago


Nefertmu I.
Nefertmu I.6 years ago

Stephen, Merita (Africa) is both the birthplace of humanity and civilization. There are medical papyri from over 140,000 years ago that describe medical procedures. The language they are written in is Medu (heiroglyphics).

Just take a look at this link that talks about the advanced age of the pyramids and what European and Muslim scholars have found about the pyramids. I find it laughable that in the article they say that the Indo-European language is the oldest that has been traced. It's really just their own racism they can't get past: