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Wild Voices: Mimicry, Reversal, Metaphor, and the Emergence of Language



Why is it that, out of 220 primate species, we are the only one that talks? The relative inflexibility of primate vocal signaling reflects audience pressure for reliability. Where interests conflict, listeners’ resistance to being deceived drives signalers to limit their vocal repertoire to signals that cannot be faked. This constraint was lifted in the human case, we argue, because the original victims of our species’ first deceptive vocalizations were nonhuman animals. When our ancestors were vulnerable hominins equipped with limited weaponry, they kept predators away by increasing the range and diversity of their vocal calls. This led to choral singing, primarily by females, and deceptive mimicry of animal calls, primarily by scavenging and hunting males. A critical feature of our model is the core principle of reversal, whereby deceptive signals aimed originally by a coalition against an external target are subsequently redeployed for honest communicative purposes within the group. We argue that this dynamic culminated ultimately in gestural, vocal, and ritual metaphor, opening the way to word formation and the rapid emergence of grammar. © 2017 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved.
Wild Voices
Mimicry, Reversal, Metaphor, and the Emergence of Language
by Chris Knight and Jerome Lewis
Why is it that, out of 220 primate species, we are the only one that talks? The relative inexibility of primate vocal signaling
reects audience pressure for reliability. Where interests conict, listenersresistance to being deceived drives signalers to
limit their vocal repertoire to signals that cannot be faked. This constraint was lifted in the human case, we argue, because
the original victims of our speciesrst deceptive vocalizations were nonhuman animals. When our ancestors were
vulnerablehominins equipped with limited weaponry, they kept predators away by increasing the range and diversity of
their vocal calls. This led to choral singing, primarily by females, and deceptive mimicry of animal calls, primarily by
scavenging and hunting males. A critical feature of our model is the core principle of reversal, whereby deceptive signals
aimed originally by a coalition against an external target are subsequently redeployed for honest communicative purposes
within the group. We argue that this dynamic culminated ultimately in gestural, vocal, and ritual metaphor, opening the
way to word formation and the rapid emergence of grammar.
Why Do Only Humans Talk?
Anthropology is the study of what it means to be human. So it
must be at least part of our job to explain why it is that, out of
220 primate species, only humans talk. Speculative theories
abound, but little agreement has been reached so far. In our
view, a viable hypothesis should invoke well-understood evo-
lutionary mechanisms; respect core aspects of hunter-gatherer
ethnography, archaeology, and the fossil record of human evo-
lution; and yield testable predictions.
A good scientic theory should also be conceptually ele-
gant. Here, we explore an entirely new explanation based on
two closely linked principlesreversal and metaphor.
A word of warning. The way we have constructed this article
is novel, and we ask the reader not to be surprised that we
conjoin a wide range of previously unconnected elds. Our basic
idea is simple: using language is so closely bound up with ev-
erything else humans dosinging, ritual, kinship, economics,
and religionthat no separate, isolable theory of its origins is
likely to work.
Our basic assumption is that words and grammar are means
of navigating within a shared virtual world. Singing, dancing,
and other forms of communal ritual are necessary to join people
together in such ideal or imagined worlds. Since language is not
a system for navigating within the physical or biological world,
it follows that nonhuman primatescreatures whose existence
is conned to the realm of brute facts, not institutional ones
(Searle 1996)will have no need for either words or grammar.
In an evolving hominin species, we argue, language will not even
begin to evolve unless ritual action has already begun to estab-
lish intensied levels of community-wide trust in association
with a shared virtual domain.
Paradigms Apart
The theoretical paradigms used to study animal communication
are incommensurable with those used by linguists to study
language. Although speech consists of vocal signals, Darwinian
theory faces the difculty that it does not apply to language.
Costs or handicaps (Zahavi and Zahavi 1997), while central to
the theory of animal communication, have no place in lin-
guistics. According to Maynard Smith and Harper (2003), the
costs to an animal of producing a signal may be divided into two
partsthe efcacy cost(the investment needed to clearly
transmit the signal) and the strategic cost(the amount needed
to convince an audience of its reliability). The classic example
here is the peacock, which must invest massively more time and
energy in proving that it can afford that extravagant tail than in
clarifying that its signal is a courtship display. To philosophers
of language, meanwhile, none of this is relevant, because com-
municative intentions cost nothing: the listener needs merely to
infer what the speaker intends (Grice 1969; Sperber and Wilson
Not all symbolic signaling is cost free. Collective ritual can
be seen as a specic form of costly signaling that underpins
the entire human symbolic domain (Durkheim 1976 [1915];
Chris Knight is Professor Emeritus in Anthropology at University of
East London and Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the Depart-
ment of Anthropology at University College London (Anthropology
Building, 14 Taviton Street, London WC1E 6BT, United Kingdom
[]). Jerome Lewis is Reader in the Department
of Anthropology at University College London (14 Taviton Street,
London, WC1H 0BW, United Kingdom). This paper was submitted
29 V 15, accepted 1 IX 16, and electronically published 30 VI 17.
q2017 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved. 0011-3204/2017/5804-00XX$10.00. DOI: 10.1086/692905
Current Anthropology Volume 58, Number 4, August 2017 000
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Rappaport 1999). Yet, because animals also perform rituals,
we need a robust criterion for distinguishing between sym-
bolic and nonsymbolic displays.
In what follows, we adopt Sperbers (1975:94) rule of thumb:
“‘Thats symbolicWhy? Because it is false.From this theo-
retical standpoint (Sperber and Wilson 1987), symbolic com-
munication rests on the ability of listeners to infer relevant
communicative intentions from expressions that, interpreted
literally, are inadequate or untrue.
The Pivotal Role of Metaphor
Since the function of language is to communicate thoughts and
ideas, we need to understand how speakers succeed in this be-
fore asking how the system evolved. Language works through
the complementary processes of ostension and inference, os-
tension being the production of cues to communicative in-
tentions and inference being the interpretation of these cues.
Viewed in this light, language takes its place as a particular type
of ostensive-inferential communication. What distinguishes lan-
guage from other such systems is that the cues provided by
speakers are vastly more precise (Sperber and Wilson 1987).
Far from being a rare and exotic deviation from the norm,
gurative usage underlies all linguistic communication. It was
once assumed that interpreting a metaphor involved literal
translation, but nowadays, this is a minority view. To translate
John is a piginto, say, John is greedywould be to lose much
of the metaphors point. Often, there is no literal translation.
Abstract concepts such as timein fact require metaphorical
representation, as when we say he has a great future in front of
himor the summer is ying by(Evans 2004). As gurative
expressions become increasingly familiar, conversationalists
resort to shortcuts, abbreviations, and conventionalizations in a
complex process that, in principle, is entirely sufcient to ex-
plain how complex lexical and grammatical structures arise
(Smith and Höer 2014, 2016).
The Language Evolution Conundrum
The ctional status of metaphors poses an evolutionary co-
nundrum. In the absence of very high levels of mutual trust and
perceived common ground, we would expect listeners to reject
all such ctions as attempts at deceit. Apes do not even attempt
metaphor, insisting on hard-to-fake vocalizations that just
cannot lie. While their manual gestures may be more exible,
there is nothing metaphorical about these.
Despite their intelligence, apes not only do not talkthey
will not even point things out for one another using their
hands (Tomasello 2006). Tomasello (2008:5) comments that
when a whimpering chimpanzee child is searching for her
mother, it is almost certain that all of the other chimpanzees
in the immediate area know this. But if some nearby female
knows where the mother is, she will not tell the searching
child, even though she is perfectly capable of extending her
arm in a kind of pointing gesture. She will not tell the child
because her communicative motives simply do not include
informing others of things helpfully.
Tomasellos argument about the arm applies equally to an apes
lips, tongue, soft palate, and mandible, all of which closely re-
semble the human speech articulators (Duchin 1990). Despite
their sophisticated cognition, apes restrict these features to basic
functions, such as chewing and breathing (MacNeilage 2008).
While emitting a bark or cry, the tongue, for example, plays little
or no role. These expressive limitations,notes Zuberbühler
(2003:299), seem to be rooted in at least two deciencies: a
lack of sophisticated control over the articulators in the supra-
laryngeal vocal tract and a remarkable shortcoming in social
Although references to ape shortcomings, deciencies, and
lack of control permeate the language-origins literature, we
prefer Tomasellos motivational account. Apes have many more
capacities than they are normally inclined to use. Any hominin
ancestor must have been able to control its tongueotherwise,
it would have been unable to taste, masticate, or safely swallow
food. No ape or monkey has an inexible tongue. When the
animal needs to communicate a thought, however, it leaves the
tongue out of it. It is this that needs to be explained.
Signal evolution theory (Maynard Smith and Harper 2003)
immediately suggests an explanation. Among the advantages of
sound are thatunlike visible gestureit carries over distances,
goes around corners, and works in the dark. But insofar as a
sound emanates from an invisible or distant source, the listener
is deprived of contextual evidence of its reliability. Keeping
vocalizations tied to bodily states may seem inexplicable to
linguists, but it is a good way to give nonhuman listeners con-
dence in what they hear. Who are you gonna believe, me or
your own eyes?joked Groucho Marx, reminding us that hu-
mans often acknowledge the same need. Mistrusting one an-
others scheming, Machiavellian minds, primates ignore the all-
too-exible tongue, preferring to rely on the evidence of their
own eyes and ears.
So here is the conundrum of language evolution. We need to
explain how and why natural selection, in the human case,
switched from quarantining the primate tongueexcluding it
from all but a marginal communicative roleto developing and
ne-tuning that same tongues role as the most important
speech articulator ofall. Since this development was biologically
unprecedented, something quite specic and remarkable must
have happened. The challenge is to narrow down what it was.
Song First: Vocal Flexibility and Deceptive Signaling
First, consider the ecological niche of Early Pleistocene hom-
inins. It included a formidable community of at least 12 species
of saber-toothed cats, eight species of other felines, and nine
hyena species (Foley 1984; Marean 1989). What is extraordi-
nary about our ancestorssuccessful occupation of this savanna
habitat is not just that they avoided being eaten by these pred-
ators (Hart and Sussman 2002) but that they went beyond
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such dangers to compete directly with these predators at their
own carnivorous game(Whiten 1999:175).
When our ancestors were vulnerable hominins living in the
open with limited weaponry, they may have survived by in-
creasing the range and diversity of their vocal calls. Lions
prowling in the dark may have been more wary of approaching
a noisy bunch of females and infants if unexpected pitch var-
iations made it difcult to estimate group size and risk. Eth-
nography from Central African (Lewis 2009) and Indian forest
people (Thin 1991:102103) describes how forest dwellers use
rhythmic clapping, drumming, chanting, and choral singing
explicitly to keep wild animals away. Marshall Thomas (2006:
271272) suggests that San trance dancing once served a similar
purpose. Our suggestion is that, over time, enhanced vocal
range and controlcapacities initially adapted to prevent us
from becoming preyeventually allowed us to reverse the
situation and become effective predators ourselves.
To this day, Pygmies in the Congo Basin, like many human
hunters across the world, imitate the cry of, say, a youngmonkey
who has just fallen from a tree to lure the larger males to come
down into range. Similarly, imitating the good foodgrunt of a
wild pig draws unsuspecting animals close enough to be speared
(Lewis 2009). The animal victims of human vocal deception are
honest signalers, hence correspondingly hardwired to expect
honesty in return. Since, from the standpoint of any duiker, the
frequency of incoming calls from conspecics far exceeded that
of the occasional human fake, resistance to deception evolved
much more slowly than human capacities to deceive. Human
deceptive signaling was, in this sense, one among several evo-
lutionary surprise attacks(Whiten and Erdal 2012) directed by
humans against other species, escalating the arms race between
predator and prey so rapidly that victims cannot keep up.
It might be wondered why early humans adapted in this way,
whereas other savanna-dwelling homininsperhaps equally
threatened by ferocious carnivoresapparently did not. We
have no way of reconstructing the vocal repertoire of Paran-
thropus. Yet, for strategies of complex vocal imitation to be-
come evolutionarily stable, deceptions appropriate to a wide
range of recurrent environmental challenges would have to
be learned, shared, and intergenerationally transmitted. There
is a close coevolutionary relationship between coalitionary
resistance to being dominated and intergenerational cultural
transmission (Whiten and Erdal 2012). The marked sexual
dimorphism characteristic of Paranthropus robustuswith
the male sporting a sagittal crest and apparently under pres-
sure to grow larger more quicklysuggests conditions of in-
tensied primate-style dominance (Lockwood et al. 2007). In
the absence of cooperative childcare in association with in-
creasingly stable counterdominance coalitions, cumulative cul-
tural evolution based on the ratchet effect(Tomasello et al.
1993) would not have come into play.
Tongue gymnastics, being volitionaly controlled, divulge little
about emotional states. It is safe to assume that even our most
distant primate ancestors could silently and dispassionately
manipulate the tongue. But our distinctively human ability to
produce pitch variations is a more recent development (Fitch
and Zuberbühler 2013:33). If music so powerfully wrenches our
emotions,it may bebecausewe still retain a naive costly signaler
faith in the honesty of those alterations of pitch representing
genuinely changing arousal states. To alternate between high
notes and low, we still need to work ourselves up, experiencing
real changes in bodily and emotional state.
The Reversal Principle
From explaining how humans began deceptively signaling while
respecting costly signaling constraints, we now turn to the social
and political conditions necessary for language to emerge. Hu-
mans are a hypersocial species, adapted to life in groups con-
sisting of multilayered coalitions. From a signal evolution
perspective, this has profound theoretical implications. Dyadic
communication differs fundamentally from signaling as part of
a coalition. The critical point is that a coalition differentiates
insiders from outsiders, each vocalization varying in signi-
cance from threatening to reassuring, negative to positive, ac-
cording to the standpoint from which it is heard.
This brings us to the concept of reversal. A display of resis-
tance against some external threat, while sounding aggressive
to outsiders, may be heard as comforting and supportive by
members of the signalers own group. This contrast is a logical
opposition or reversal, but one that, in principle, might have
evolutionary implications. Pursuing this thread, we suggest that
the rst vocally expressed metaphors may have been fake ver-
sions of animal criesliteral falsehoods whose signicance was
reversed by the fact that they were now uttered and inter-
preted within the signalers own group.
Smiling and laughter beautifully illustrate the reversal prin-
ciple. It is widely believed that the distinctively human smile
has its evolutionary origin in the nonhuman primate fear
grina gesture of tense, nervous submission (Van Hooff and
Preuschoft 2003). The relaxed human version of this primate
facial expressionthe good-humored smileis a fear grin
under reversed social conditions. Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1989:138)
likewise argued that human laughter can be traced back to the
rhythmic cries of group-living primates mobbing a common
enemy. In conformity with the reversal principle, we can see
laughter as aggressive vocal mobbing, except that, in our case,
it culminates as the apparent threat dissolves, allowing the
rhythmic chorusing to be enjoyed for its own sake.
Human laughter consists of repeated segments of sound
that are all emitted during the same prolonged exhalation, un-
like chimpanzee tickle playvocalizations (glossed by pri-
matologists as laughter), which strike us as little more than
heavy breathing. Although Provine (2000:9697) sees the evo-
lutionary roots of both types of laughter in primate tickle play,
this is not convincing. In humans, extreme laughter may in-
volve tears, revealing its close neurological links with crying
(Provine 2000:187). The connection with mobbing is also clear.
Laughter,as Provine (2000:2) points out, is a harlequin that
shows two facesonesmilingandfriendly,theotherdarkand
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ominous . . . Laughter can serve as a bond to bring people to-
gether or as a weapon to humiliate and ostracize its victims.
Chimpanzee laughter lacks these ambivalent in-group/out-
group dimensions, indicating that the two types of rhythmic
vocalization may have different evolutionary roots.
Eibl-Eibesfeldts (1989:138) mobbing hypothesis brings to
mind the chimpanzee waa-bark.Goodall (1986:130) de-
scribes this typically collective, choral vocalization as a kind
of running commentaryprovided by bystanders during a
conict between others, usually indicating sympathy for the
victim. De Waal (1996:9192) describes an incident involving
Jimoh,the alpha male holding sway over a large group of
chimpanzees in a spacious enclosure. Having just discovered
one of his favorite females secretively copulating with an ad-
olescent male, Jimoh rampaged around the enclosure intent on
catching the male culprit. Before he could accomplish his aim,
however, several females close to the scene began to waa-bark
louder and louder, until literally everyones voice was part of a
deafening chorus. As the rebellion reached its climax, Jimoh
retreated with a nervous grin on his face; he had got the
Mixed with aggressive waasand various hoots, similar
mobbing noises are heard when neighboring chimpanzee
patrols encounter one another and when hunting parties fend
off threats posed by enraged animals that they are trying to
hunt. What is interesting for our purposes is that a coalition of
females will, at one moment, be mobbing, say, a python, only
to redirect the very same barks to defy an over-aggressive male
within their own social group. Not merely communicative,
these barks perform a normative function. A handful of
scattered subordinate protests up in trees can be ignored by a
superior as he displays,writes Boehm (1999:169), but an en-
tire group waaing in a context that suggests imminent physical
intervention will get his attention. In this sense, waa-barks
provide a signal by which individuals in various roles can read
the political dynamics that are taking place in their group. The
subordinates, if they sense enough support, may be embold-
ened to rebel in deed, rather than by voice alone.
Although this is not yet laughter, we see it as preguring
the kind of laughter that, among hunter-gatherers especially,
cuts over-assertive individuals down to size while bonding the
in-group together (see Knight 2000; Lee 1988; Lewis 2009;
Woodburn 1982). Laughter is an important force preserving
those distinctively human levels of in-group trust and mutu-
ality on which linguistic creativity in turn depends. Humilia-
tion for breaking social norms reverses into solidarity through
recognizing themlaughing at becomes laughing with.
Cooperative Eyes
The contrast between hunter-gatherer egalitarianism and
primate-style dominance is reected in the reversed design of
the eyes. Those of adult apes appear dark against an equally
dark background, making it difcult to detect direction of gaze.
Only in humans is the location of the iris visible from a dis-
tance, showing dark against a white sclera background (Ko-
bayashi and Kohshima 2001). Reecting face-to-face inter-
personal dynamics quite unlike those of chimpanzees, such
eyes appear designed for turn-taking and two-way or inter-
subjective mind reading (Tomasello et al. 2007). This can be
observed as human mothers with infants watch each others
eyes while playing with objects, progressively establishing the
weintentionality essential for language skills (Bruner 1983;
Tomasello 2003). If the cooperative eye hypothesisis correct,
it would be especially useful to know when in evolution hu-
manshighly visible eyes originated, as this would suggest a
possible date for the origins of uniquely human forms of co-
operation and communication(Tomasello et al. 2007).
Whichever date is proposed, this was no mere modica-
tion but marks a systematic reversal of previously prevailing
political relationships. Long before the emergence of lan-
guage, evolution in our species accomplished a cascade of
profound reversals, from being prey to becoming predator,
turning the fear grin into the smile, aggressive vocal mobbing
into relaxed laughter, and eyes for looking out into eyes en-
abling others to look in.
Encephalization and Life-History Constraints:
The Gray Ceiling
Beginning some two million years ago, as our relatively slow-
moving and defenseless ancestors became exposed in more
open environments, it was the fear of predators that began
driving these reversals, leading to larger group sizes, increased
social complexity, and selection for larger brains. Faced with
heavier pregnancy and childcare costs, females began respond-
ing with novel foraging, sexual, and alloparenting strategies,
modifying male behavior accordingly.
Why did our ape relatives not similarly evolve? Ape mothers
cannot give birth to offspring with brain sizes approaching
human levels, because they get no help with their babies. In their
case, sustaining brains exceeding a gray ceilingof around 600
700 cc would involve levels of infant mortality and maternal
stress likely to compromise the long-term viability of popula-
tions. Cooperative breeding allowed Homo erectus to increase
population sizes even when greatly exceeding this ceiling, pro-
ducing brains twice as large as those of chimpanzees (Isler and
van Schaik 2012:S463S464).
It is precisely when an evolving hominin mother lets others
hold her baby that selection pressures for two-way mind reading
and triadic structures of joint attention are set up (Burkart et al.
2014; Hrdy 2009). The mother must elicit support and accu-
rately judge othersintentions toward her offspring; likewise,
her baby must interact with its new caregiver while monitoring
wheresmumgone?The alloparentnecessarily a female rel-
ative in the original scenarioadopts a quasi-maternal role. In
the course of such activities as mutual gazing, cooing, babbling,
and kissfeeding, an array of cognitive skills and dispositions
develops to help mother, baby, and allocarer stay in mutually
reassuring contact with one another. On this basis, we suggest
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that our uniquely cooperative eyes began evolving around two
million years ago.
Great ape mothers never needed human-like elaborate
mechanisms for bonding with their offspring, because they
rarely if ever let their babies go. They cannot fully trust those
around them, because on reaching maturity, they must usually
leave their natal group, severing their bonds with familiar fe-
male kin. By implication, Homo mothers actively resisted such
isolation, reversing the primate tradition by remaining in their
natal groups, close to kin that they could trust with their ba-
bies. In line with the grandmotherhypothesis (e.g., Hawkes
et al. 1998; OConnell, Hawkes, and Blurton Jones 1999), we
take it that a mothersrst alloparenting recourse would have
been her own mother.
For a mother to assist with her daughters children, she must
live close by. While this idea is incompatible with traditional
patrilocal band assumptions (e.g., Foley and Gamble 2009;
Gavrilets 2012), the growing consensus around cooperative
breeding has lent new credence to Dunbars (1996:150) sug-
gestion that female bonding may have been a more powerful
force in human evolution than is sometimes supposed.The
importance of female coalitions (cf. Knight 1991, 2008; Opie
and Power 2009) is conrmed by population geneticists re-
porting a deep-time bias to matrilocality among African hunter-
gatherers (for Khoisan, see Schlebusch 2010 ; for Central Af-
rican Pygmies, see Verdu et al. 2013).
The Egalitarian Revolution
The basic thing about linguistic symbols is that they are in-
tersubjective . . . meaning that they are comprehended and
understood in the context of self-other equivalence(Toma-
sello and Rakoczy 2003:128). Since self-other equivalence is
unlikely to be fostered under conditions of dominance and
subordination, we follow Boehm (1999), Whiten and Erdal
(2012), and Gavrilets et al. (2008) in highlighting political
egalitarianism as the critical element in the transition to sym-
bolic culture and modern mind.
Against this, Tomasello and colleagues (2012) argue that
the critical element must have been warfare:
Creating cultural conventions, norms, and institutions at
the level of the social group as a whole requires a new way
of thinking in which there is a wethat constitutes not just
my current partners in a collaborative enterprise but all of
us in this society. This new way of thinkingthat we are a
wevery likely evolved in response to group competition,
as each group had to circle its wagons.(Tomasello et al.
There are two problems with this scenario. One is that, even if
it occurred in certain populations, it is difcult to see how it
could possibly have led to language. Neighboring groups of
male chimpanzees frequently engage in violent conict with-
out evolving toward language. The cultural ratchet effect is
unlikely to be fostered by such strategies, because preserving
innovations requires continuity and stabilityand in war, no
one can expect to win all the time.
The other difculty with Tomasellos scenario is that war-
fare is not what egalitarian, immediate-return hunter-gatherers
do. Without leaders, warfare is not possible. Far from being
warlike, the ethnographic literature describes people who ac-
tively welcome, include, and even marry their neighbors; when
conicts do arise, the rst choice is typically to retreat from
hostility. The theory of primitive warfare does have its sup-
porters (e.g., Alexander 1987; Pinker 2011; Shackelford and
Weekes-Shackelford 2012), but unless the idea is ethnographi-
cally supported, we can legitimately dismiss it as an ethno-
centric assumption.
Immediate-return hunter-gatherers do not erect fences or
defend borders and are systematically disengaged from prop-
erty; hence, they are disengaged from its potential to create
dependency (Woodburn 1982). Demand sharing is imposed
on anyone with more than they can immediately consume,
preventing saving and accumulation. Everyone can move freely
and has direct individual access to the resources necessary for
survival. Individuals cannot coerce others to do their will, and
people who brag or try to impose themselves on others are
mercilessly teased and avoided. Such societies exhibit greater
gender, age, and interpersonal egalitarianism than any other
human societies and exist in Central Africa (Pygmies, such as
BaYaka, Efe, Mbuti, and so on), Tanzania (Hadza), Namibia
and Botswana (Khoisan groups), India (Andaman Islanders,
Hill Pandaram, Nayaka, and so on), and Southeast Asia (Agta,
Batek, Maniq, Penan, and so on). The global distribution of
these cultural traits suggests that such social systems are highly
stable and successful adaptations whose key elements predate
human migrations out of Africa. Any theorizing about early mod-
ern humans needs to take into account these core traits (Lewis
2014a). Given our origins in Africa, we focus particularly on
the BaYaka as a highly resilient egalitarian group whose ad-
aptation to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, although contempo-
rary, maintains key elements of immediate-return societies.
Lewis has been conducting ethnographic research with BaYaka
since 1994.
So what common threat can explain weintentionality and
group-level morality? Here, then, is our alternative to the
primitive warfare model. What most endangered cooperative
childcare was the roving male strategyalways a Darwinian
optionof impregnating one female after the next without
stopping to invest. Strategies of this ancient primate kind
would have seemed as threatening to would-be investor males
as to mothers of large-brained, heavily dependent offspring.
This gives us the prospect of a coalition of everyonea
weagainst the spectre of the alpha male. Where conditions
are favorable, such a grand coalitionunlike an all-male war
partymight expect to win every contest it undertakes.
In this spirit, Boehm (1999:157) pictures hunter-gatherer
egalitarianism as the product of a large, well-united coalition of
subordinates who assertively deny political power to the would-
be alphas in their group.Boehm (1999:193) observes that col-
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lectively creating and maintaining an egalitarian society re-
quires a high degree of political intelligence and a systematic
understanding of political dynamics and outcomes. It also re-
quires a political capacity to operate in large coalitions and a
cognitive capacity to arrive at a shared plan of action.The
cumulative result represented a sea-changethe egalitarian
revolution(Gavrilets et al. 2008). Boehm (1999:255) terms it
the egalitarian surprise.
Gender Dynamics in the Middle to Late Pleistocene
In accounting for this sea change, it is not possible to avoid
sex. Tomasello and Boehm acknowledge sex when discussing
chimpanzees yet manage to adopt a unisex, gender-blind ap-
proach when it comes to humans. Hrdys gendered model is a
necessary corrective, but her persuasive account of cooperative
breeding stops short of the crucial later stages of human evo-
lution, when language and symbolic culture begin to evolve.
Our approach combines the insights of Boehm and Hrdy
with those of Opie and Power (2009). The costs associated with
renewed encephalization among Middle Pleistocene Homo
heidelbergensis (c. 700 ka) prompt child-burdened females to
pressure males into becoming increasingly reliable helpers
alongside grandmothers and sisters. With males bringing nu-
tritious resources, such as honey and meat, children and their
carers can reside longer at a camp before relocating, a devel-
opment reected in the establishment of structured hearths
from around 350 ka (Shimelmitz et al. 2014).
Males are induced to help through strategies of political and
sexual counterdominance. Carried to its extreme, this becomes
reproductive leveling (Bowles 2006), with all males sharing
roughly equal prospects of fertile sex and, correspondingly,
every female having access to the mating effort of at least
one male. Returning to our primary case study, the BaYaka,
women laughingly formulate a similar ideal in the girls initi-
ation song, One womanone penis!(Lewis, Lewis, and
Lewis 1998). Where women are sufciently demanding of
male time and energy, it becomes difcult for any single male
to satisfy a group of females. This is the best way to explain the
familiar nding (Dyble et al. 2015; Karmin et al. 2015; Marlowe
2005) that immediate-return hunter-gatherers tend to be gender
egalitarian and monogamous.
For this strategy to work, each female who is known to be
menstruating (hence imminently fertile) must be resolutely
guarded and defended from the advances of philandering males.
This is the core idea behind the female cosmetic coalitions
(FCC) hypothesis (Power 2001, 2009, 2014). A male wanting
sex must prove his worth by bringing meat back to camp. To
ensure that male energies are harnessed to the full, females
refuse sex to uncooperative males (cf. Knight 1991). Pregnant
or nursing mothers act to prevent any male from targeting a
menstruant at their expense, doing so by joining with her in
scrambling and amplifying her fertility signal with blood
substitutes. This might be termed, by a social anthropologist,
her initiation ritual. By complying, the menstruant provides a
reliable display of her commitment to the coalition. Males
willing to commit should now be as hostile to philanderers as
everyone else.
If males invest preferentially in females who resist
noninvestorsthat is, in females who have accepted initiation
into a gendered ritual coalitionwe would expect an explosive
increase in cosmetics in the archaeological record in con-
junction with modern human speciation (Power 2009). This
theoretical expectation is empirically conrmed. Traces of
predominantly blood-red pigments suggestive of group rituals
can be discerned from around 500300 ka, associated with H.
heidelbergensis (Watts et al. 2016). This sparse pigment record
precedes the nal phase of encephalization, which, in Africa,
sees the speciation of Homo sapiens. This is exactly when
pigment usewith a marked preference for brilliant blood
redsbecomes ubiquitous, being evident in virtually all south-
ern African rockshelter occupations from 170 ka onward
(Watts 2002, 2014; Watts et al. 2016).
For cooperative hunting to succeed, mens capacities for
violence must be directed outward, their weapons harmonized
and used only against nonhumans. During the nights before
an elephant hunt, BaYaka of both sexes engage in all-night
singing and dancing, a communal activity that bonds everyone
but also makes it difcult for couples to get intimate without
being noticed. The underlying logic is that conceptualized by
Knight (1991) in terms of sex strikeaction. A BaYaka in-
formant remembers her father as a tumaan elephant hunter:
When he hunted, he always brought back meat. He hunted
the gazelle and the elephant. Before an elephant hunt, all the
hunters gathered in a camp and danced all night. They take a
big pot full of powerful medicine and put all their spears into
this pot. Every night they dance and sing all night long. When
they sleep, they sleep apart from their wivesno sex before
the hunt(Hewlett 2013:74).
In common with other African hunter-gatherers, such as the
San (Marshall Thomas 2006:175) and Hadza (Marlowe 2003,
2005; Woodburn 1964), BaYaka women do not accompany
men on dangerous hunting expeditions. Without segregation,
the abstinence required by a sex strike would be unenforceable.
It is not male gender dominance but the dynamics of strike
action that explain why hunter-gatherers so often divide gender
roles categorically, insisting, for example, that no womanshould
shed blood in the hunt (Testart 1986).These dynamics offemale
solidarity also underlie brideservice, in which a man leaves his
natal group to work for a bride who continues to reside with
her mother or other protective kin (for Hadza, see Wood and
Marlowe 2011 and Woodburn 1972; for Pygmies, see Lewis 2002:
74, 127; for San, see Lee 1979:240242 and Marshall 1959:352,
On Costly Signaling and Metaphor
With the core stable features of African hunter-gatherer eth-
nography in mind, we can now envisage the collaborative
coining of the worldsrst word. The rst word only became a
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word,notes MacNeilage (2008:44), when a receiver and a
sendera sociocultural dyadcame to treat a particular sound
complex as standing for a particular concept. From that mo-
mentous occasion onward, every word of every language came
into being in this way.
In our model, however, this momentous occasionwas not
the matching of a concept with a sound but the more profound
revolutionary transition just presentedthe use of symbolic
ritual to establish a way of life based on moral norms. In addi-
tion to setting up the conditions for verbal metaphor to be
deployed, this ritual was itself a metaphorical performance of a
particularly potent kind.
Metaphors need not be verbally expressedeven without
words or grammar, a simple gesture might do the job (Mc-
Neill 1992). Metaphor is primarily a matter of thought and
action, and only derivatively a matter of language,explain
Lakoff and Johnson (1980:153). As with symbolism in gen-
eral, the most basic social condition for metaphor is an audience
prepared to tolerate apparent falsehood as a prompt to search
for meaning. Shared understandingsabstract conceptscould
never emerge in a world where everyone insisted that signals
be literally true.
Generally,Davidson (1979:40) explains, it is only when a
sentence is taken to be false that we accept it as a metaphor and
start to hunt out the hidden implication.However, that im-
plicationthe point of the metaphormay be lost on a lis-
tener who does not share the speakers relevant assumptions
and experience of the world. A metaphor that seems self-
evident to the Central African BaYakaWomans biggest hus-
band is the Moon,for example (Lewis 2008)may strike West-
ern scientists as incomprehensible and unworthy of serious
study. The same applies to metaphors equating female men-
struation with male bloodshed in the hunt (Knight 1991; Lewis
2008; Testart 1986). Although scientic conceptualization is
itself fundamentally metaphorical (Lakoff and Núñez 2000), the
core metaphors of hunter-gatherers appear so alien to Western
assumptions that scientists from Western, educated, industrial,
rich, and democratic (WEIRD) cultural backgrounds (Henrich
et al. 2010) rarely feel able to grasp the logic or nd common
ground. The point here is that we should not expect indige-
nous categories to match the way Western science carves up
the world (Lakoff 1987). If we nd it difcult to comprehend
the elaborate myths and cosmologies of other people, it is be-
cause their common ground is no longer ours.
Our Metaphors and Theirs
In the West, the moon and menstruation have largely faded as
experiential sources of the metaphors we live by. For African
hunter-gatherers, however, they remain central.
The language of hunting and romance across sub-Saharan
Africa is saturated with references to the moon. Romantic liai-
sons are associated with the full moon, and menstrual seclusion
is associated with the new moon (Watts 2005; cf. Knight 1987).
When moonlight is absent and the night sky is dark, BaYaka
women stay close together, keeping predators away from camp
by singing as loudly as they can. Hadza women do the same,
singing through the night during their major ritual performance
the epeme dancetimed to occur monthly on moonless nights
(Woodburn 1982). One of the universals unearthed by Lévi-
Strauss in his Mythologiques is an association between dark-
ness, the absence of cooking re, and the production of loud
noises. Since earliest times, ritual and narrative metaphors have
elaborated prolically on conceptual transitions between lunar
darkness and light, danger and safety, death and resurrection
(Eliade 2005 [1949]; Lévi-Strauss 19701981; Marshack 1964).
Hunter-gatherers are well aware that menstrual bleeding is
related to fertility. On a Darwinian selsh genebasis, we
might expect would-be alpha males to respond by competing
for the imminently fertile female. Yet this hardly occurs.
Among African hunter-gatherers, the womans protective kin
attribute supernatural potency to menstrual blood in ways
that galvanize both sexes into gendered cooperation, success-
ful hunting, childcare, sharing, conservation, and economic
abundance (Knight 1991; Power 2001; Power and Aiello 1997;
cf. Testart 1986). These effectsconceptualized by the BaYaka
as so many manifestations of ekila (Lewis 2008)are achieved
by constructing womens blood as magically dangerous to
mens blood-spilling activities, profoundly shaping belief, la-
bor, and conduct down to many details of everyday life.
Given the facts of sexual difference, hunter-gatherer women
might conceivably climb for honey and hunt big game animals,
but in real life, they use their attractions and solidarity to get
men to do this for them. Womens success in this depends on
their sexual autonomytheir freedom to link legitimate sex
with male hunting success and the proper sharing out of meat.
Wherever women are well-organized, sex becomes a negoti-
ating resource for inuencing and managing what males do.
Among the techniques are songs, dances, and rituals in which
women identify both with the moon and with the game
animals they expect their menfolk to hunt (Knight, Power, and
Watts 1995; Lewis 2002, 2008, 2014b).
The metaphors of BaYaka and other African hunter-
gatherers are logical in the light of these peoplesshared ex-
periences of nature and its challenges.
The moon. On dark, moonless nights in exposed areas, lions
exploit their excellent night vision to surprise their prey. Like
other vulnerable creatures, humans are much more likely to be
killed and eaten when the moon is not visible in the sky (Packer
et al. 2011).
The menstrual cycle. At 29.1 days, the human menstrual
cycle quite closely approximates the moons 29.5-day synodic
cycle, unlike the menstrual cycle of chimpanzees (36 days) or
bonobos (40 days; Martin 1992; Saltzman, Tardif, and
Rutherford 2010). A possible adaptive basisfor the human cycle
length could be reproductive leveling: among primates, syn-
chronizing to any natural clock makes it difcult for alphas to
monopolize fertile sex with multiple females (Carnes, Nunn,
and Lewis 2011; Ostner, Nunn, and Schülke 2008; Power,
Sommer, and Watts 2013; Turke 1988). An additional deep-
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time evolutionary pressure may have been lionshabit of eating
people on moonless nights (Packer et al. 2011). When early
Pleistocene hominins were attempting to survive by robbing big
cats of their kills (Blumenschine 1986; OConnell et al. 2002;
Shipman 2011), it may have been logical to restrict overnight
journeysincluding sexual liaisonsto times when there was a
bright moon in the sky.
Divergent sexual characteristics and reproductive strategies.
The female menstruates, gets pregnant, and nurses babies. Fol-
lowing impregnation, the male is, in principle, free to disap-
Lunar periodicity, menstruation, and sexual difference are
ever-present natural universals, to which African hunter-
gatherers have responded with corresponding symbolic uni-
versalsmetaphors they live by.The core metaphors that
have seemed natural to successive generations of hunter-
gatherers may be thought of, following Maynard Smith (1982),
as optimal responsesevolutionarily stable cognitive strate-
giesshaped by challenges that are likely to vary only within a
limited range.
From Singing to Vocal Symbolism
BaYaka living in the forests of northern Congo-Brazzaville
regularly experience predation and attack by large dangerous
animals, particularly leopards, elephants, buffalo, and gorilla.
Yet they also hunt these and other animals. Evolving hominins
must also have been predator at one moment and prey the
next. Anthropologists have focused productively on this ar-
chetypal example of the reversal principle, aware of how uni-
versally it shapes ritual and cosmology (Bloch 1992; Descola
1993; Viveiros de Castro 1998).
For BaYaka, the forest is conscious and will offer abundant
resources when pleased by the sounds of human laughter and
song. The unhappy sounds of shouting, ghting, or children
crying provoke it to withhold its bounty. The sounds most likely
to enchant the forest are those of the forest itself, mimicked by
humans and echoed back. This is how the BaYaka understand
their polyphonic singing, which consists not of lip or tongue
modulations but exclusively of pitch changes expressed in
vowels. They say that such sounds please the forest because
their melodies are the forestswords(Lewis 2009:252). This
BaYaka conception inspires our own explanation of how lan-
guage evolved.
Whenever BaYaka women go gathering in the forest, they
keep together in a large group, singing loudly. Women are
particularly fearful of unseen predators on dark, moonless
nights. At such times during their spirit playrituals, women
claim to be hungry and call on the menfolk to prepare to go
hunting and bring meat, their demands accompanied by sex-
ual humor and teasing. Temporarily defying their husbands,
women loudly conduct intimate conversations with their big-
gest husband,the now-invisible moon. The moonspresenceis
felt in the form of menstruation (ama die na uwedi [I am with
the moon]), the odor of which, it is said, attracts dangerous
animals. As the women sing, calling the forest spirits intobeing,
they sit closely with limbs and bodies intertwined, forming
a tangled, compact mass. As their melodies interlock in the
complex vocal polyphony, their joy rises as their intermingled
bodies and voices become one.
Pinker (1997:534) views music as auditory cheesecakethat
confers no survival advantage. Most ethnomusicologists argue
instead that it exists to promote group coordination and cohe-
sion (e.g., Brown 2000; Lomax 1968; Merriam 1964). BaYaka
womens exquisitely synchronized choral singing deters pred-
ators by broadcastingto the forest that theyare a largeand well-
organized group, much as synchronized roaring by coalitions of
lionesses warns rivals of their numerical strength (McComb,
Packer, andPusey 1994). San all-night trance dancing is argued
by Marshall Thomas (2006:271272) to serve a similar function.
This suggests that BaYaka womens own interpretation of their
singingtheir insistence that they aresinging for their livesis
probably right.
The descended larynx in the adult human male probably
evolved initially not to enable language or song but as a size-
exaggerating device adaptive in sexually competitive male-
on-male roaring contests (Fitch 2002). The theory that music
may have evolved initially thanks to sexual selection of this
kindwith females choosing males for their vocal skills
(Miller 2000)is unlikely. Among Pygmies, San and Hadza
women take the lead in singing, with men playing a secondary
role. The ethnography ts the women and children versus
predatoridea better than the sexual selection for male vo-
calizersone. While women and young children have every
reason to scare away predators by making noise, mens priority
while hunting is to give no audible sign of their presence,
treading carefully and masking their signals by blending them
with the forestsownsounds.
It may seem that, to describe the earliest musical and lin-
guistic sounds as essentially vocal fakes,is confusingly nega-
tive. But relative to primate vocalizations, that is what they are.
Peirce (1940) distinguished between symbols (arbitrarily linked
with their object), icons (similar to their object), and indices
(physically connected with their object). Only indices are not
fakes. By primate standards, both symbol and icon fall into the
fakecategory, since they lack any built-in component of re-
But symbolism is more than just fakery. To qualify as a
symbol, a fake or replica must meet two further conditions:
(1) instead of being confused with the original, it must be ac-
knowledged as distinct; and (2) instead of being rejected on
those grounds, it must be accepted and socially circulated. Our
point is thatthese conditions are met when vocal fakes originally
aimed at deceiving animalschoral singing on the one hand,
animal mimicry on the otherare reversed through being
redeployed to share ideas within the group.
To sum up our evolutionary hypothesis, the vocal deceptions
in which each sex specialized were originally directed outward,
against animals unable to resist fake versions of their own
species-specic calls. With deant communal singing con-
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structing weintentionality and joint commitment, strategies
of sexual and political counter dominance culminated eventu-
ally in a new normative order based on reverse dominance and
egalitarianism. Internal trust intensied until something with-
out precedent occurred. A hunter entering camp with a dead
pig on his back made a good foodpig vocalization even
though no living pigs were nearby. The risk of confusion and
misunderstanding might have seemed immense, but with good
will, they were overcome. The key was that people began to
place trust in one anothers communicative intentions, regard-
less of the literal truth or reliability of the signals themselves.
Reversing Sexual Violence into Play
Bateson (1973) rst highlighted reversal as key to under-
standing animal play. He observed that, when young monkeys
playfully biteand chaseone another, their antics constitute
violent aggressionbut with all meanings reversed. A nipis
an aggressive bite reversed by the message this is play.The
animals preliminary play invitationmaking a play face, for
examplemeans, in effect, the aggressive actions that follow
are not to be mistaken for real.Each partner can now afford
to losefor the sake of the game. Turn-taking implies self-
other equivalence and is as central to the logic of animal play
as it is to reversing roles from speaker to listener in the dy-
namics of human gossip and conversation (Sacks et al. 1974;
Stivers et al. 2009). Finally, when young animals play, they are
at their most unpredictable and creative. While the vocal sig-
nals of young primates tend to be stimulus bound, inexible,
nonsymbolic, and limbically controlled, their playful bodily
antics are strikingly imaginative, unpredictable, incipiently sym-
bolic, and cognitively controlledall suggesting a point of de-
parture for the evolutionary emergence of language (Knight 1999,
2000; Lewis 2009).
Once monkeys and apes reach sexual maturity, play ghting
turns irreversibly into serious conict. Former primate play-
matestwo brothers, for examplebecome hostile contes-
tants as sexual rivalries come to dominate their relationship. In
aght over sex, playfulness is ruled out, because neither side
can afford to lose. This obliges us to ask how so deeply rooted a
problem as primate sexual violence could have been contained
and transcended during the course of human evolution.
A BaYaka creation myth illustrates how play can transcend
sexual violence, reversing male-female conict into laughter
and mutual respect. In the beginning, say the BaYaka, men
and women lived apart. Women produced babies without
needing men. They did so by dancing with a forest spirit
named Ejεngi, a phallus-like being from whose rafa clothing
little babies would fall. Ignorant of this, men copulated with
mapombea large, hard fruit lled with white cream:
One day (according to the mens version), men discovered
for the rst time that women existed in a distant part of the
forest. When rst spied upon, the women were dancing with
Ejεngi. Wanting these creatures for themselves, the men
decided to ambush them as if they were wild pigs. Instead of
using spears, however, the men beat them with honeycombs.
On tasting the sweetness, the women agreed to yield to the
mens desire, whereupon everyone enjoyed sex for the rst
time. Delighted, one man shouted I want three of these!,
and another, I want four!But the elder woman, Beponga,
refused. Only one woman for each man!
The climax of this myth is a play ght. The men ght the
women by beating them with honeycombs. The women are
happy to lose this particular game, but they insist on winning
others, which the men are happy to lose in turn. Ritualized play
pervades the very arena that, in other primateschimpanzees,
for exampleleads recurrently to sexual violence. Among
these and other African hunter-gatherers (Finnegan 2014), sex
no longer shuts down play. Instead, playnow scaled up as
adult playful ritualsucceeds in transforming and pervading
the entire arena of sex (e.g., Keeney and Keeney 2013 on San;
Power 2015 on Hadza).
The BaYaka creation myth ends with men seizing womens
baby-making dance, Ejεngi, for themselves. To this day, men
dance Ejεngi to assert their muscular prowess and pride.
Womens answer is Ngokuadeant dance focused around
womens own sexual and reproductive secrets. Conceptualized
as their communal spirit, Ngoku acts out the mythic theme of
the time when women did not need men.
As the performance begins, little boys are frightened away,
running to their fathers to hide. Adult men in huts close to the
dance ground typically retreat, some trying to ignore the
raucous proceedings by escaping into the forest. As men vacate
the central communal space, the women seize control, sub-
ordinating the entire community to their authority.
The female community link arms, charging up and down the
length of the camp singing Ngoku! Ngoku!Older women lead
the songs, which consist largely of insults such as Doto ba die
ebe![Old men are no good!], or Eneke mu ganye, mapindi ba
mu pola![The vagina always wins, the testicles are empty!]. In
one dance, the women lie on their backs rubbing their thighs
together until they become frenzied and are lifted up from be-
hind by an elder Ngoku initiate. In another, older female ini-
tiates undergo gender reversal to much laughter as they vividly
mimic men attempting sex with the younger women. Ngoku
reminds everyone that women have solidarity, that access to
their bodies depends on consent, and that relations with men
will be on womensterms.
The BaYaka word massana encompasses ritualand play.
Adopting a hunter-gatherer perspective on such things reveals
how some of our intellectual difculties are products of the way
Western science carves up the world. From a BaYaka stand-
point, ritualis not separated by a chasm from play, which in turn
overlaps at many points with language (Lewis 2009, 2014a). A
similar perspective is adopted on scientic grounds by White-
head (2014) and also by Wyman (2014).
In seeking to explain why language evolved in our species but
in no other, we have described how evolving human mothers
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with increasingly large-brained babies faced progressively heavier
childcare burdens, prompting them to resort to cooperative
childcare (Hrdy 2009) and to sing to keep safe on dark nights.
Once they had coalesced to share childcare and song, the po-
tential existed for them to develop their solidarity for a new
purposesquaring up to threats posed by dominant males.
Female-led ritual-cosmetic resistance to dominance by alpha
males culminated eventually in reverse dominance(Boehm
1999; Knight 2014; Power 2014), outlawing violence or physical
threat as a viable reproductive strategy for males. This liberated
human creative potential in many ways. Up until this point, play
had remained largely restricted to immaturity, because the tran-
sition to adulthood invariably caused sexual conict to break
out. Once sexual violence had been marginalized, imaginative
play (as massana illustrates) was free to extend without a break
into adult life, increasingly embracing it and structuring it, to
the point where it becomes a foundation for hunter-gatherer
social existence(Gray 2009).
The Worlds First Metaphor?
Our model is testable in the light of evidence from a number of
domains: from archaeology, a cosmetics industry focused on
blood-red pigments coinciding with evidence for male in-
vestment in cooperatively raised offspring and corresponding
rapid encephalization; from genetics, a deep-time bias toward
matrilocality among African hunter-gatherers; and from eth-
nography and rock art, wrong plus redas the core signature
of ritual potency.
The rst prediction, concerning cosmetics, arises as a result
of the FCC strategy in response to female reproductive costs
(see above). The record of red pigments in the African Middle
Stone Age currently supports the hypothesis of a correlation
with encephalization. A matrilocal bias is predicted, because
only on that basis can females maintain kin-based cooperative
childcare. As noted above, the genetic evidence reveals a dis-
tinctive signature of Central and Southern African hunter-
gatherers conrming a deep-time matrilocal tendency.
The third prediction is derived by asking what reverse
dominance should look like as a ritual display, given that its
principle is sexual deance. Stereotypically female roles must
be systematically reversed. We might expect, in other words,
roughly what we nd among the BaYakawomens raucous
singing, dancing, laughter, and rough sexual humor. Among
other things, we would expect performers to proclaim a patent
falsehood, playfully insisting that they are not what, in bio-
logical fact, they are. Since any alpha male would be seeking to
impregnate someone of his own (human) species, of the op-
posite (female) sex, and currently in her fertile (ovulatory) pe-
riod, it follows logically that female collective deance should
convey the opposite on each count, yielding wrong species,
wrongsex,and wrong time(Knight, Power, and Watts 1995).
The universality and salience of these themes is striking to
anyone familiar with the initiation rites of African hunters and
gatherers, particularly those rites celebrating a young womans
rst menstruation (Power 2009; Power and Watts 1997, 1999;
Watts 2005). A Ju/hoansi menarcheal girl is playfully con-
structed as an eland bull; the metaphor for her menstruation is
that she has shot her eland; her !Xo counterpart has her face
painted with gemsbok designs and ritually shoots a gemsbok
mask (Lewis-Williams 1981; Power and Watts 1997). The
matriarchal heroine of Hadza mythology is Mambedako, the
woman with the zebras peniswho originally owned epeme
meat (Woodburn 1964). Recalling this myth, the metaphor
for any woman who has begun to menstruate is that, like
Mambedako, she has shot her zebra//akakwa dongo
(E. Mouriki, personal communication). Such metaphors make
no logical sense until we grasp why, to express wrong plus
red,women performatively become a gender-reversed, bleed-
ing game animal.
Returning to the BaYaka creation myth, the battle of the
sexes culminates in play. It could have ended in violence, but it
does not. When a girl rst menstruates, that is the moment of
greatest risk. The danger is that, by signaling her fertility to the
world, her body will incite rival males to ght over her. Here, as
elsewhere, her relatives therefore choose this as the moment to
act. Among the Ju/hoan Bushmen, details vary, but what
remains consistent in the girlspuberty rite is that the rst
sign of bleeding signals a time for immediate community ac-
tion.The ensuing dancing counteracts violence by soothing
any existing tensions and giving new hope for the future
(Keeney and Keeney 2013:74). Among the Nharo of Botswana,
the dancersincluding older women and menhumorously
stage mock male ghtingto make their point (Guenther 1999:
166). As womenshilariousperformanceavertsthedangerofreal
ghting, typically to the accompaniment of peals of laughter,
the founding principles of hunter-gatherer morality, kinship,
ritual, and economics are restated and renewed.
From Mimesis to Grammar
So far, we have discussed how community-wide ritual estab-
lished the normative conditions for language to evolve. It was
Durkheim (1976 [1915]) who rst realized that, for repre-
sentations to be linguistically communicable, they had to form
part of a collectively shared conceptual repertoire, ritual alone
being capable of generating the necessary concepts in every-
ones head. In his major work, Rappaport (1999) points out
that the function of ritual is not to differentiate between lexi-
cal meanings but to establish, for everyone, an overarching
meaninga metaperformative or Wordfrom whose sub-
sequent fragmentation a limitless multiplicity of subsidiary
meanings can be derived. If singing, drumming, and dancing
last all through the night, it is not because so many different
meanings need to be conveyed. The sounds do not need to
mean anything and, like Pygmy vocal polyphonies, certainly
do not need to include words. Yet, by showing willingness to
expend so much time and energy, everyone is demonstrating
commitment, leading to a powerful sense of belonging and
corresponding mutual trust. For Rappaport, the evolutionary
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emergence of such bonding mechanisms must have played a
key role in encouraging public condence in otherwise unre-
liable words. It is communal ritual that gives rise to what Searle
(1996) terms we-intentionality,in turn the source of lin-
guistic conventions and other institutional facts. The outcome
of all this is a paradoxical insight. Rappaport explains how
apparently irrational nonsenseperhaps the endless repeti-
tion of just a few meaningless soundsmay provide the
ground, deeper than logic and beyond logics reachupon
which to establish sufcient collective authority and mutual
trust to build up the usages and rules of social life,in turn
enabling words to make sense. Building on this speech/ritual
coevolution idea (Knight 1998), we have taken the risk of
specifying, in some detail, the worldsrst metaphor, identi-
fying it as a gendered ritual performance in which the core
principles of primate politics are overturned.
We now have a repertoire of shared, mutually recognizable
symbolic gestures, dance steps, and snatches of song. This is not
yet syntactically complex language, but we are well on the way.
For grammaticalization to get under way, according to Heine
and Kuteva (2007), you need only one thing: freedom to in-
novatefreedom to sayone thing while meaninganother.
Imagine an ancestral community that had recently converged
on a few noun-like lexical items, such as dance,”“spear,or
re.What would stop speakers from using these conven-
tionalizedsounds orgestures, where necessary, as verbs? Only if
you were worried about grammaronly if you had the noun
concept already in your headwould this pose any difculty.
Heine and Kuteva insist that categories like nounand verb
arise out of usage; they certainly do not need to be hardwired in
the human brain from the start.
Over time, as the functions of words diversify, they become
subject to subtle changes in the way they can be deployed. Pref-
erences become habits, and habits become grammatical rules.
Within a few generations, the community will have constructed
for itself a fully grammaticalized language. The speed of the
emergence of the rst grammar at the inception of language is
astronomical in comparison to the speed of Darwinian evo-
lution(Li 2002:90).
This returns us to our opening question: what was the
mysterious factor relentlessly blocking any hint of grammat-
icalization throughout the greater part of hominin evolution?
The age-old obstacle, we have argued here, was the burden im-
posed on all signals to incorporate some costly component to
demonstrate reliability. Foras long as humans were restricted to
such signals, there was no foundation on which grammati-
calization could build. There is no fast, efcient, zero-cost way to
overcome mistrust. On the other hand, as Steels (2014) points
out, there would be no grammaticalization if efciency did not
come rst. To demand reliability is to rule out efciency and,
by the same token, stop in its tracks any known process of
grammaticalization. Roars, screams, pant-hoots, and compa-
rably costly signals are just not the kind of entities that can be
reduced, combined, or recursively structured in the manner that
grammaticalization requires.
For grammar to evolve, speakers must rst be liberated from
primate-style worries about reliability. Listeners must be pre-
pared to give speakers the benet of the doubt, evaluating truth
not signal by signal but holistically, postponing judgement until
the entire utterance is complete, focusing at each point not on
surface meanings but on underlying communicative intentions.
The liberating freedom to lienot only depends on the speaker
but also presupposes encouragement and trust on the audiences
part. Narrative cannot evolve without this precondition, and
neither can grammar. Far from punishing imaginative creativ-
ity, sympathetic listeners must go out of their way to reward it,
valuing ctions, deviations, and even apparent errors as cues to
what speakers may have in mind.
Conclusion: The Breakthrough
As a constraint on speculation, we have tried to imagine an
overarching metaphoran overarching falsehoodof such
value to a community that it somehow survived, providing a
template from which other metaphors could then be derived.
Above all, we explain why the falsehood was not immediately
rejected, as signal evolution theory would predict. A winning
ritually enacted falsehood, we have argued, was that hunter-
gatherer women are game animals, their blood (fertility) in-
separable from that of the hunt. This strange ction succeeded
because it was collective, essential to the survival of that col-
lectiveand aimed at an enemywho ultimately had good
reason to collude.
These are tight constraintsso tight that, in the animal
world, they exclude the very possibility of language. Since
language exists, the solution must somehow have been found.
Returning to the BaYaka, let us look again at Ngoku. Those
women fresh from singing for their livesin the forest have
now returned to camp. They redirect their singing internally,
reversing its focus from outside enemies to ones insidenow
their own menfolk, especially potential alphas. They do all they
can to demonstrate erotic desire (saying yes) while defying
male sexual desire (not now). By publicly controlling access to
their bodies, they deny alpha males access to them through
At this point, something without evolutionary precedent
occurs. The enemyreverses his position and joins in. There
are good Darwinian reasons why men might accept defeat
at the hands of women who are nursing their own genetic
offspring. Any strategy likely to benet a mans offspring must,
by denition, benet his genes. It is mens willingness to yield
to this logic that distinguishes them as fully human for the rst
time. Just as the fear grin reverses its meaning into the smile
and vocal mobbing reverses into socially inclusive laughter,
so womensdeant, boisterous singing and dancingdesigned
to make sexual violence unthinkablecollapses and reverses,
yielding something else. That otherthing,wesuggest,islanguage-
based human society.
In summary, we propose that a principle of reversal ap-
plied consistently down the generations explains the key steps
Knight and Lewis Wild Voices 000
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by which speech progressively emerged from a point of de-
parture in costly signaling. Resistance to primate dominance
drove the evolution of distinctively human eye morphology,
social cognition, laughter, play, and musicall central to the
most liberating development of all, the transition to language.
Our hypothesis respects the constraints of Darwinian signal
evolution theory while explaining how it can be brought into
alignment with metaphor and grammaticalization theory. Fi-
nally, we have respected the ethnographic record while pro-
viding a set of predictions testable in the light of recurrent struc-
tures of egalitarian African hunter-gatherer ritual and belief in
addition to data from archaeology, population genetics, and the
fossil record of human evolution.
We have argued on the assumption that language is a system
for navigating within a shared virtual world. We have brought
together a range of apparently disconnected topicsmost
centrally singing, dancing, and other forms of communal ritual
actionbecause such activities are necessary to conjure up
that world of shared imagination in which alone language can
thrive. In an evolving hominin species, language will not even
begin to evolve unless and until intensied levels of community-
wide trust and a shared virtual domain have already been put
in place.
J. Lewisseldwork was supported by Wenner-Gren grant
5695 and Horniman and Swann Fund scholarships. Fieldwork
began during 19941997 and has continued with annual or
biannual return visits since then.
Wendy James
Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology and Fellow of St. Cross
College, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3LZ, United Kingdom
( 10 XI 16
The eld of anthropology as a whole has always needed hard
evidence from a variety of scientic research methods but, at the
same time, has been dependent on the creative, even poetic side of
interdisciplinary interpretation. The rate at which astonishing
new ndings about the nature of our humanity are emerging
these days from archaeology, genetics, neuroscience, and so on
is without precedent (see journals such as Nature,Scientic
American,orNew Scientist). There is also plenty of collabora-
tion between archaeologists and the behavioral sciences: a ne
example is the British Academys seven-year project Lucy to
Language: the Archaeology of the Social Brain, directed by Robin
Dunbar. However, when itcomes to the social and cultural side
of anthropological studies, interdisciplinary crossover and mu-
tual insights have been relatively rare.
This article is therefore especially welcome. It rests on col-
laboration between the radical rethinker Chris Knight on the
beginnings of human sociality, on the one hand, and the
sustained eld research of Jerome Lewis, on the other, in
pursuing parallel themes over many years among the BaYaka
hunter-gatherers of the Congo Basin. The key theoretical
with other human signaling and communication systems, does
not simply act to convey information in a straightforward way,
in the way that a dog might bark in the night to warn you of a
stranger. Language makes things up: it speaks clearly only to
those who understand its conventions, while confusing or de-
ceiving others who do not. Knight and Lewis argue that some
of the rst deceptive signals were intended by early hominid
hunters to confuse potential prey, while collective chorusing,
especially by females, could have developed as a way of giving
the impression that the group was larger and more powerful
than it actually was. Signals thus originally intended as decep-
tion and directed at sources of danger could be understood
differently within the group, and from thisfoundation, we might
see how further shared understandings of sound and gesture
might lead to metaphor and grammar.
There is, of course, a reluctance among social anthropologists
to return to old-fashioned assumptions about the primitive
character of tribal ways that wehave now put behind us. But
the coherence of modern Homo sapiens (at least predating the
latest emergence from Africa) is accepted today in ways that
enable us to justify renewed comparisons with our ancestors on
the social and cultural front. Perhaps we can begin regarding
them, and even their immediate ancestors among Homo hei-
delbergensis (although I do not claim to speak with authority on
dates), as being more like us than was once thought. Lewiss
detailed studies of central African song, dance, and ritual en-
actments bring to life an exercise in the making and meaning
of such forms of expression that our authors here would regard
as reecting some of the basic, and possibly ancient, charac-
teristics of human language and communication generally.
Central to this approach is the shared, collective, and coali-
tionary side to so much of our human communication, indeed
approaching the politicalfrom the earliest times. Our authors
assume that the well-documented challenges of power between
alpha males in ape-style social lives would have led, in early hu-
man populations, to wider patterns of collective action among
lower-status individuals, including by females, as population
groups grew in size and complexity. One of the key shifts to
greater female interaction, in particular, was the growing ad-
vantage of collaborative parenthood, especially with the growing
need for assistance with the increased difculty of giving birth to
large-brained offspring and their extended need for care during
infancy and youth. Such care would also have to include extra
provisioning by the males in the way of food resources and
protection. Our authors would trace back to such roots the
elaborate myths and metaphors of songs and dances, still found
today, that represent the fertile woman in the ritual role of game
animalsomething common among several groups of central
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African hunter-gatherers but also found in southern Africa and
One striking point where the archaeological evidence does
seem to make live contact with our sense of what is special to the
lives and experiences of humans, as distinct from nonhumans,
even beyond stone tools and weapons, are the increasingly an-
cient ndings ofpieces or signs of red ochre. It is difcult to avoid
the conclusion that red ochre, and perhaps other colors too, were
used to mark objects or people and thus confer identityon an
object or an individual within some created system of relation-
ships between people who share an understanding of the whole.
From the general perspective of social anthropologists, and cer-
special type of discovery. The use of red pigment seems to de-
mand that we have to assume possibilities of human-style so-
ciality indicated by symbolicsigns and ceremonial activity,
including perhaps vocal sounds, gesture, and a game-like give-
and-take in communication not only between individuals but
on behalf of recognized groups. In addition to perhaps newly
emergent groups based on gender, there might well emerge the
kinds of reciprocity based on mutual exogamy and continuing
relations between the generations, especially on the maternal side.
In the early days of anthropology, it was commonly assumed
that documenting remote present-day tribes was a way of il-
lustrating ways of life now virtually extinct, the peoples so dis-
tant from ourselves that they really were quite different beings.
But with the increasingly widespread and personal character of
eld research from the early twentieth century onward, unsus-
pected depths of sophistication have been revealed in human
language, imagination, and behavior across the world. Nowhere
is this clearer than in the work of todayseld anthropologists,
such as Lewis and other colleagues referred to in the paper;
together with the theoretical insights of Knight and linked ideas
of the linguists and philosophers also referred to, this collabo-
rative piece suggests just how much we can learn from con-
temporary ancient othersabout ourselves.
Camilla Power
Anthropology Programme, School of Social Sciences, University
of East London, London E16 2RD, United Kingdom (c.c.power@uel 23 XI 16
This article has rare interdisciplinary range, proposing a syn-
thesis of real originality and counterintuitive insight. The au-
thorsposition, that we cannot explain the evolution of lan-
guage by itself without understanding evolving human social
and political contexts, is surely correct. If language is for nav-
igating a shared virtual world, as Knight and Lewis claim, it
could not even begin to evolve until communal ritual action
a kind of pretend playhad already begun constructing such
imagined worlds.
It is refreshing to see social anthropologists grappling with
evolutionary theory, the fossil record, life-history theory, and
up-to-date cognitive linguistics to reconstruct the likely con-
ditions under which language rst evolved. The authors invoke
central features of hunter-gatherer ethnography, especially rit-
ual and play, to suggest how grammaticalization processes,
now well understood, may have taken off from the worlds
rst metaphor.
To explain the establishment of distinctively human levels
of group cooperation, too many theorists (e.g., Bowles 2009;
Pinker 2011; Tomasello et al. 2012) have fallen back on the
fashionable war leads to in-group moralityargument. This is
not a solution that ts with what we know of egalitarian Af-
rican hunter-gatherers. By contrast, playful war between the
sexes, as exemplied in this article, not only matches the
ethnographic evidence but provides a plausible mechanism for
generating moral norms both within and between groups. In
particular, the gender conict model, with sexual counter-
dominance curbing the dominance strategies of alpha males,
directly accounts for rules governing sex.
Warfare itself is not known to generate these. The specic
FCC model argued by the authors predicts sexual morality of
the kind found in initiation rituals and enforced through
hunter-gatherer traditions of brideservice.
The article makes good use of Lewiseldwork among the
BaYaka, although more might be done to justify the relevance of
forest hunter-gatherer data for evolutionary scenarios. During
eldwork with the savannah-dwelling Hadza, I witnessed ritual
gender contests strikingly similar to those described here as
Ngoku, with specic gender-reversal or wrong sexbeing a key
feature of the Hadza myth of epeme (Power 2015).
The article is valuable simply for its documentation of Ngoku
and the presentation of gender ritual as a form of communal
play (massana). Religion has often been cited as critical to the
evolution of human hypersociality and symbolism (e.g., Deacon
1997; Rappaport 1999; Sosis and Alcorta 2003), but these sce-
narios tend to be colored by our late-historic experience of re-
ligion as solemn, patriarchal, hierarchical, and inexible. The
playfulness and creativity of African hunter-gatherer gender
ritual surely give us greater insight into the nature of religion
when language was beginning to evolve.
Central to the authorsargument is what they term the
principle of reversal.By this, they mean a consistent logic ac-
cording to which relaxed social conditions transform anxiety
into relief, the primate fear grin into the human smile, vocal
mobbing into human relaxed laughter, and aggressive warfare
into play ghting and letspretend.The authors make the
crucial point that each of these reversals is revolutionary in that,
once social conditions are transformed, negative reexes can
change into their complete opposite.
Against this background, the authors take traditional as-
sumptions about the linguistic function of the tongue and
turn them upside down. Where previous theorists have as-
sumed that the ape or early hominin tongue lacked sufcient
exibility for speech, Knight and Lewis say that it was already
too exible, given the requirement for vocal signals to be
reliable. Paradoxically, in other words, it is precisely owing to
Wendy James Comments 000
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its exibility that the primate tongue plays no role in vocal
Only the drastic lifting of reliability constraints could have
liberated the tongue to take on its current function as the central
speech articulator. Before thisdevelopment, use of the tongue to
modulate vocal signals must have been for purposes other than
speech. Deceptive use of the voice as an evolutionary surprise
attackdirected against animal species sounds like a good idea.
Are there possible phylogenetic comparisons with other vocal
mimicking speciesbirds and cetaceans, for example? It would
strengthen the argument if this could be shown. What marks
out those species from their nonmimicking sister taxa?
To explain why apes do not even point, the authors accept
Tomasellos argument that they are simply too competitive. In
their own social world, primates are forced to vocalize in ways
that carry conviction, which means tying their signals to emo-
tional and bodily states and, for that reason, minimizing exi-
bility. The authors offer a convincing account of how, during
human evolution, vocal control crept into our ancestorsrep-
ertoire. First came tuning the voice to others in choral singing, as
female and juvenile hominins combined their voices to keep
dangerous animals away. Then came deceptive mimickry, as
hominin males became increasingly sophisticated hunters. The
argument is that, taken together, these male and female vocal
strategies preadapted the human vocal apparatus for speech.
The second part of the article offers a rich, ethnographically
informed account of how metaphor and symbolism arise out of
ritual processes. Drawing on philosophy, social anthropology,
and evolutionary linguistics, Knight and Lewis provide an intel-
lectually satisfying account. They conclude by asking what it was
that rst licensed the dynamics of grammaticalization familiar to
historical linguists to get under way. The crucial new ingredient,
they answer, was ritually generated public trust. With listeners f or
the rsttimeplacingtrustinoneanothers communicative in-
tentions, metaphorical and other gurative usage got under way.
Language does not fossilizesohowcanweeverknowhowit
evolved? Because this model embeds language origins within a
wider theory encompassing the emergence of ritual, morality,
kinship, and economics, it can be tested against evidence in a
number of domains: archaeology, genetics, and ethnography.
Have we got an alternative hypothesis of comparable ambition
and rigor?
Sławomir Wacewicz
Center for Language Evolution Studies, Faculty of Languages,
Nicolaus Copernicus University, C332, Bojarskiego 1, 87-100,
Toruń, Poland ( 11 XI 16
Trust, Metaphor, and the Evolution of Language
So, why is it that out of 220 primate species, we are the only one
that talks? Standard, intuitive approaches to explaining the
absence of language in nonhuman primates have traditionally
involved pointing to the anatomical factors, such as in the
conguration of the vocal tract, or to cognitive-conceptual
ones, such as the difculty of mastering the arbitrary signier-
signied relation of linguistic reference. But very ne control over
vocalization is exemplied in other mammalian taxa, and
perhaps more fundamentallythe auditory medium is not a
sine qua non, as demonstrated by numerous deaf communities
across the world, where fully linguistic communication works
very well in the visuomotor channel. On the cognitive side,
nonhuman animals are generally extremely procient at match-
ing arbitrary signals, vocal or otherwise, to their referents via
a variety of simple conditioning mechanisms (which, admit-
tedly, is still far from true symbolic reference; cf. Deacon 1997
in the language origins context). It is not that those differ-
ences are unimportantrather, they only become relevant once
something much more fundamental is in place: a platform of
trust (Dor et al. 2014). Although it is both interesting and
challenging to explain how the signiers rst came to be asso-
ciated with their signieds in a communicative act, the true
challenge is to explain how such signals rst came to be believed
at face value, rather than promptly ignored as candidate lies.
Thus, Knight and Lewis undoubtedly begin from the right
starting point. The main transitionthe missing linkthat
they identifyis not cognitive but sociocognitive (i.e., estab-
lishing a platform of trust and thus providing the motivation to
exchange honest, rather than deceptive, signals). This connects
the eld of language origins research (although language
evolutionis the preferred term in the eld; see Dediu and de
Boer 2016) not just to cognitive evolution but to the enormous
bodies of recent literature on cooperation, altruism, and evo-
lutionary stability. Of course, this point is widely accepted by
the insiders (e.g., Fitch 2010; Hurford 2007; Zlatev 2016).
However, this point is still worth stressing repeatedly, because
it is dramatically underappreciated in at least some closely
relevant disciplines (as one example, such reection is com-
pletely absent even from those linguistic textbooks that do take
up the question of language origins; see Wacewicz et al. 2016).
The implications are ubiquitous and profoundand still
not fully appreciated. It is particularly noteworthy that many
of the key design featuresof language (see Hockett 1960, but
also Wacewicz and Żywiczyński 2015 for partial criticism)
the key differences between language and animal communi-
cationstem from this honesty constraint, in the sense that
there is only room for them to emerge once that constraint is
lifted. Examples include compositionality, arbitrariness, and
displacement, which can only permeate a communication
system if they are placed on top of a preexisting platform of
trust. For example, combinatorial signals could easily convey
compositional meanings, but when each of the meanings re-
quires independent costly evidence to be accepted, the costs of
complex messages quickly spiral out of control. Likewise, re-
cent studies conrm displaced cognition in apes (e.g., Osvath
and Osvath 2008), so the problem with displaced communi-
cation may lie not so much in the difculty of conjuring up
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entities not present in the immediate here and now but rather
in the difculty of believing in them in the absence of any
immediate evidence.
To this list, Knight and Lewis add metaphor. Here meta-
phorgoes beyond the surface layer of nonliteral phrasing,
because what they refer to is the cognitive-linguistic sense of
Lakoff and Johnson (1980)conceptual metaphor as a tool
in structuring thought. Actually, Lakoff and Johnsons concept
of metaphor reaches even deeper, as it pervades all levels of
linguistic expression, including, for example, couching basic
temporal and other abstract relations in terms of somewhat
more tangible spatial relations. So a long time,”“above av-
erage,and so on are also metaphorical, and as such, they in-
stantiate what Knight and Lewis call literal falsehoods,which
can only be believed with aid from this platform of trust that
we so often just take for granted (cf. Dahl and Adachi 2013
for some evidence that metaphorical mappings are not cogni-
tively inaccessible to chimpanzees).
While the skeletal structure of Knight and Lewisaccount is
robust, the complete story is an intricate one with many pre-
carious points, rich in detail that, to a considerable degree, is
speculative and probably nonessential to the main thread.
Some of the connections appear tenuous and the leaps too
large. For example, the fact that both play and language rely on
creativityis hardly reason enough to link the two. As to the
depigmentation of the sclera of the eye (a trait apparently
unique to humans among primates; although see Perea 2016),
there is little doubt about its evolutionary import for the genus
Homo; however, it is far from clear that it indeed developed in
the context of mother-infant interactions (which would seem
to predict reverting to the primate baseline in adult males).
Similarly, the hypothesis about the dual origins of human vocal
prowessmimicking the sounds of the forest in males but
choral singing in femaleswould seem to predict differences
in vocal capacities between the two sexes. For the claims about
the risk of predation from large felines as a motivation for
choral singing, quantiable data, such as mortality rates, would
help estimate the strength of this particular selection pressure.
Finally, some of the testable predictionsdo not seem to have
a true predictive nature; they are indeed valuable observations
consistent with the account, but because they are made post
factum, we cannot be sure whether this compatibility is sys-
tematic or merely contingent. In particular, I would welcome
more evidence for the controversial FCC (Power 2014) before
it is accepted.
We are grateful to the commentators for their care in detailing
both the strong and weak points in our argument. We are nat-
urally delighted with the positive tenor of all three responses,
which summarize our central thesis in some ways better than
we managed to do ourselves. We especially appreciate the con-
sensus that language evolution presupposes biologically unprec-
edented levels of public trust. Given the overwhelming pre-
dominance of formalist perspectives within theoretical linguistics,
it has proved difcult, until now, to get this point across. But as
Sławomir Wacewicz points out, the presence or absence oftrust
has always been known among insiders as absolutely pivotal,
despite the fact that language origins textbooks and popular
debates routinely pass over this whole issue.
Wendy James makes the important point that misplaced
political correctness has previously inhibited anthropologists
from placing hunter-gatherers in any kind of evolutionary
framework. The motivation was understandable: it seemed
important to avoid collusion with social Darwinisms treat-
ment of farmers and city dwellers as civilized by comparison
with the supposedly primitive mental and cultural level of
hunter-gatherers. The result has been intellectually cata-
strophic as well as politically ironic. It meant that we stopped
listening to the voices of real hunter-gatherers, failed to ap-
preciate their deeply communal values, and blocked our ears to
the crucial role of laughter, singing, playful ritual, and other
expressions of joyful collectivity in achieving an egalitarian
lifestyle every bit as cultural and civilized as our own. Although
it was this lifestyle, rather than our current one, that shaped
our emergence as modern humans, we have chosen to forget it.
Unconsciously internalizing the assumptions of social Dar-
winism, politically aware theorists faced with evolutionary
questions would feel deeply uncomfortable about hunter-
gatherers, valuing instead what they might learn from in-
formants deemed to be like uspeople such as farmers, city
dwellers, or students consulted in campus questionnaires. As a
result, the horizons of evolutionary theorists became restricted
to the prison of our own deepest cultural assumptions. We
thank Wendy James for giving us the opportunity to elaborate
this point.
In the same spirit, Camilla Power endorses our argument
that territorial warfare is unlikely to have generated the con-
ditions for language to evolve. A more likely candidate, she
agrees, is gender conict of the kind characteristic of extant
African hunter-gatherersplayful gendered resistance to domi-
nance behavior in males. Power notes that our hunter-gatherer
evolutionary ancestors occupied open savanna landscapes rather
than deep forests, calling into question the relevance of the life-
style of the BaYaka and other Congo Pygmy hunter-gatherers.
We take this point, but as Power herself reminds us, the savanna-
dwelling Hadza share many of the same structural features as
the Bayaka, as do the Kalahari Bushmen and other southern
African hunter-gatherer groups.
Sławomir Wacewicz is essentially supportive but feels that
our argument has many precarious points.We take each one
in turn.
Concerning play, we would point out that, unlike chim-
panzees, children are born with an appetite to read and express
communicative intentions and, in the process, to acquire the
Wendy James Comments 000
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words and grammar of their natal tongue. If we regard this as
genetically evolved, we have no choice but to assume some
precursor. Primate social play seems to us the best candidate
for a number of reasons. In our article, we build on Gregory
Batesons insight that a playful nipbetween two young
monkey playmates in some ways anticipates symbolism. Al-
though this is not yet language, we see in the primate play
instinct one of the necessary precursors of human symbolic
Wacewicz pictures our discussion of primate play as if it
were a separate claim, unconnected with reverse dominance,
cooperative eyes, predation pressure, and the other topics that
we cover in our article. Clearly, we could have done more to
convey how our arguments interconnect.
For example, Wacewicz agrees with us that trust is vital but
does not see the relevance of primate play to the rest of our
argument, as if we were simply asserting that both play and
language rely on creativity.In fact, we were arguing that
primate play has the potential to evolve in language-like di-
rections but fails to do so because sex gets in the way. As they
mature into adults, nonhuman primates become less and less
trustful and playful with each other and more and more sex-
ually suspicious, competitive, and demanding of reliability in
their social signals. In a conict-ridden world, the incentive to
rely on any innate symbolic capacities diminishes. In humans,
evidently, this entire trajectory must have been reversed, the
playful instincts and capacities of the young increasingly
nding scope for expression in an adult life based on the use of
symbols. Only a profound transformation of sexual dynamics
could have led to this uniquely human development.
Sławomir Wacewicz interprets us as claiming that our
speciesuniquely transparent eyes evolved exclusively in the
context of mother-infant interactions. But our whole argu-
ment is that, during human evolution, the trusting, playful
relationships that nonhuman primates experience only as
youngsters extended increasingly into adult life. The solidarity
achieved by females in forming childcare alliances was sub-
sequently extended as their primary means of securing male
provisioning and outlawing primate-style dominance as a
means of gaining reproductive success. So the cooperative
parenting strategies we document did not simply affect infants
but led to an entire social system based on counterdominance,
reverse dominance, and corresponding relationships of mu-
tuality and trust. It is against this background that we explain
the evolution of our uniquely human cooperative eyes.
Wacewicz challenges our suggestion that hunter-gatherer
males pursued strategies of vocal deception signicantly dif-
ferent from those of females, objecting that this would lead us
to expect major differences in vocal capacities between males
and females. Well, we do nd interesting differences here, but
that is not our point. We are simply drawing attention to the
fact thatamong African hunter-gatherers, at leastmen
take care not to frighten the animals while hunting, whereas
women make as much noise as they can while foraging. This at
least rules out those traditional man the hunterscenarios
according to which spoken language evolved so that men could
cooperate in the hunt.
Wacewicz highlights the absence of mortality data proving
lionshabit of eating people on moonless nights. In fact, our
main reference (Packer et al. 2011) provides detailed statistics
for Tanzania, where lions attacked 1,000 people between 1988
and 2009. Over two-thirds of these attacks were fatal, and the
victims were eaten. The vast majority of victims were attacked
after dark. The hourly distribution of attacks each night across
the lunar cycle showed victims to be signicantly more vul-
nerable during the darkest part of each month and night.
Because lions prefer attacking victims in total darkness, attack
rates varied strikingly with the phase of the moon. Hourly
attack rates were two to four times higher in the rst 10 days
after the full moon than in the 10-day period before the full
But Wacewiczs overarching point is that our core argu-
mentthat language depends on trust
might better have been
made without all the speculative detail we provide. To this, we
can only answer that speculative detailspredictions derived by
following the internal logic of an argumentare what make a
scientic hypothesis interesting and, above all, testable.
Chris Knight and Jerome Lewis
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... Although it is a part of the credible signaling hypothesis (which includes coalition signaling), we call our hypothesis predation deterrence to make a distinction between signaling among humans and signaling by humans toward non-human animals. According to our hypothesis, the strategy to repel any potential non-human threat is ornate and loud, especially when implemented in large numbers instead of being quiet and inconspicuous (Knight and Lewis, 2017). ...
... Foraging activities are gendered among the BaYaka, where women generally focus on the gathering of fruits, nuts, and tubers while men preferably target meat, high-hanging fruits, and honey (Thompson, 2018;Veen et al., 2023). Music and dance are an integral part of the BaYaka society which dictates their day-today lives (Lewis, 2002(Lewis, , 2013Knight and Lewis, 2017;Oloa-Biloa, 2017). The BaYaka exhibit music in both the individual and group levels, especially, BaYaka women, who often sing during foraging (Lewis, 2013) as well as in larger gatherings such as spirit plays (Oloa-Biloa, 2017). ...
... observation by J.L). In addition, the BaYaka often showcase a complex polyphonic song structure intertwined with polyrhythms during social contexts such as spirit plays (Mokondi Massana) (Lewis, 2009;Knight and Lewis, 2017;Oloa-Biloa, 2017). ...
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Music is a cultural activity universally present in all human societies. Several hypotheses have been formulated to understand the possible origins of music and the reasons for its emergence. Here, we test two hypotheses: (1) the coalition signaling hypothesis which posits that music could have emerged as a tool to signal cooperative intent and signal strength of alliances and (2) music as a strategy to deter potential predators. In addition, we further explore the link between tactile cues and the propensity of mothers to sing toward infants. For this, we investigated the singing behaviors of hunter-gatherer mothers during daily foraging trips among the Mbendjele BaYaka in the Republic of the Congo. Although singing is a significant component of their daily activities, such as when walking in the forest or collecting food sources, studies on human music production in hunter-gatherer societies are mostly conducted during their ritual ceremonies. In this study, we collected foraging and singing behavioral data of mothers by using focal follows of five BaYaka women during their foraging trips in the forest. In accordance with our predictions for the coalition signaling hypothesis, women were more likely to sing when present in large groups, especially when group members were less familiar. However, predictions of the predation deterrence hypothesis were not supported as the interaction between group size and distance from the village did not have a significant effect on the likelihood of singing. The latter may be due to limited variation in predation risk in the foraging areas, because of the intense bush meat trade, and hence, future studies should include foraging areas with higher densities of wild animals. Lastly, we found that mothers were more likely to sing when they were carrying infants compared to when infants were close, but carried by others, supporting the prediction that touch plays an important prerequisite role in musical interaction between the mother and child. Our study provides important insight into the role of music as a tool in displaying the intent between or within groups to strengthen potentially conflict-free alliances during joint foraging activities.
... What might such early forms of plasticity look like? For humans, the use of vocal aggressive mimicry is one potential substrate (Knight & Lewis, 2017). For all regions save for Europe and North America, acoustic exploitations were the primary form of aggressive mimicry, and among acoustic mimicry, 85.6% of it was as a direct (self-emitted) imitation of prey or predators of prey. ...
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The evolutionary origins of deception and its functional role in our species is a major focus of research in the science of human origins. Several hypotheses have been proposed for its evolution, often packaged under either the Social Brain Hypothesis, which emphasizes the role that the evolution of our social systems may have played in scaffolding our cognitive traits, and the Foraging Brain Hypothesis, which emphasizes how changes in the human dietary niche were met with subsequent changes in cognition to facilitate foraging of difficult-to-acquire foods. Despite substantive overlap, these hypotheses are often presented as competing schools of thought, and there have been few explicitly proposed theoretical links unifying the two. Utilizing cross-cultural data gathered from the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), we identify numerous (n = 357) examples of the application of deception toward prey across 145 cultures. By comparing similar behaviors in nonhuman animals that utilize a hunting strategy known as aggressive mimicry, we suggest a potential pathway through which the evolution of deception may have taken place. Rather than deception evolving as a tactic for deceiving conspecifics, we suggest social applications of deception in humans could have evolved from an original context of directing these behaviors toward prey. We discuss this framework with regard to the evolution of other mental traits, including language, Theory of Mind, and empathy.
... The beginnings of language might well have occurred via imitation and mimicry of animals and were expressed in music and dance. Both are ubiquitous among humans (Lewis, 2009;Knight and Lewis, 2017). Mimicry of sound (entrainment to a musical beat) or of body movement (dance) is suggestive of the capabilities of motor and vocal imitation (Fitch, 2016;Laland et al., 2016;Fink et al., 2021). ...
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The evolution of human language is a topic that has received undiminished attention. Numerous hypotheses for the origin of human language have been proposed, including gestural communication found specifically among apes. This study advances the hypothesis that human evolution, including human language development, is three-pronged: prosocial, cognitive, and collaborative. Duetting and turn-taking in primates are used as pivotal examples of how bonding leads to joint action and collaboration. It points out that such vocal behavior itself may be a crucial precursor of language evolution in the sense that it is explicitly focused on a conspecific. Some current hypotheses have acknowledged duetting as an important perceptual and behavioral example of synchronicity. Some forms of synchronized behavior, as found in duetting, synchronized dance, or even shared song, were perhaps crucial evolutionary steps preceding the evolution of human language. Duetting signifies more than that, however, because it is an observable and significant cognitive investment that signals attention toward a partner. This study also advances the hypothesis that affect and cognition would have needed to precede any form of duetting or signs of affiliation such as grooming. Hence, this study, asking what duetting in primates signifies in evolutionary terms, takes a multidisciplinary and multimodal approach to suggest important affective and cognitive steps in the evolution of human language and speech, the chief of which is prosociality. Prosociality, as an attitude and awareness of another, be this as a friend or partner for whom one can do favors or whom one can help, is a model for collaboration and cooperation, and also increased cognition.
... In total darkness, these huge felines and hyenas have superb night vision. Groups of Homo erectus women with children would have needed to plan their defences, with techniques of mass mobbing and chorusing to deter predators (Knight and Lewis, 2017). Even a small glimmer of moonlight is sufficient to stop big cat hunting activity. ...
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For Marx, all forms of economics could be reduced to “an economics of time”. To restore a sustainable rhythm to our planet, our lifeways and economy, we need to decolonize time. The first part of this essay sketches a history of capitalism as robbery: ever tighter control of time yielding greater economic exploitation and inequality. The second part asks how we could reorganize and redistribute time. What can indigenous and egalitarian societies teach us today about the passage of time? What biological and cultural resources do we have for slowing down the rhythms of our economy and redistributing time? The evolution of women’s reproductive cycles and the lunar calendars shared by world religions give evidence for a deep time human lunar ecology.
... Jordania (2008), who argued for the role of increased predation pressure on hominins and predator signaling in the evolution of rhythm, put it nicely: "syncronised group shouting gives a strong message to the predator that it has to deal not with the group of scared individs (sic), but with a well-organised and determined unity (2008:61). There is indeed evidence that hunter-gatherers and forest peoples use trance dancing, rhythmic clapping, drumming, chanting, and singing to ward off wild animals (reviewed in Knight & Lewis, 2017). ...
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After they diverged from panins, hominins evolved an increasingly committed terrestrial lifestyle in open habitats that exposed them to increased predation pressure from Africa’s formidable predator guild. In the Pleistocene, Homo transitioned to a more carnivorous lifestyle that would have further increased predation pressure. An effective defense against predators would have required a high degree of cooperation by the smaller and slower hominins. It is in the interest of predator and potential prey to avoid encounters that will be costly for both. A wide variety of species, including carnivores and apes and other primates, have therefore evolved visual and auditory signals that deter predators by credibly signaling detection and/or the ability to effectively defend themselves. In some cooperative species, these predator deterrent signals involve highly synchronized visual and auditory displays among group members. Hagen and Bryant (Human Nature, 14(1), 21–51, 2003) proposed that synchronized visual and auditory displays credibly signal coalition quality. Here, this hypothesis is extended to include credible signals to predators that they have been detected and would be met with a highly coordinated defensive response, thereby deterring an attack. Within-group signaling functions are also proposed. The evolved cognitive abilities underlying these behaviors were foundations for the evolution of fully human music and dance.
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a thesis on thought as conscious process from a processual ontologic account (my former master thesis, extended and updated) Rolf Huet, 2022 This thesis addresses to what extent we sense the mental state of thinking. Is thinking a conscious process? These questions depend on how secure we are about our self-knowledge. Can we be wrong about our presumption of reliable self-knowledge? How authoritative are we on our thought? This challenge is actualized because of a recently presented theory on self-knowledge which questions the possible range of our direct introspective ability of knowing our mental states because of a restricted sensory signaling pattern found by neuroimaging. According to this theory, advocated by Carruthers (ISA theory for self-knowledge), we have no secure knowledge of our thought. We function like a marionette of interpreted and attributed nonconscious processes. In this thesis I challenge this view and argue that from a functional persepective thought is best considered as a conscious process, although all the processing is nonconscious. THe reason is that all cognitive processes generate epistemic feelings which drives us for further action to our benefit. This conscious expression makes it plausible to see thought as a conscious proces.
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Homogeneously depigmented sclerae have long been proposed to be uniquely human—an adaptation to enable cooperative behaviour by facilitating interpersonal coordination through gaze following. However, recent evidence has shown that deeply pigmented sclerae also afford gaze following if surrounding a bright iris. Furthermore, while current scleral depigmentation is clearly adaptive in modern humans, it is less clear how the evolutionarily intermediate stages of scleral pigmentation may have been adaptive. In sum, it is unclear why scleral depigmentation became the norm in humans, while not so in sister species like chimpanzees, or why some extant species display intermediate degrees of pigmentation (as our ancestors presumably did at some point). We created realistic facial images of 20 individually distinct hominins with diverse facial morphologies, each face in the (i) humanlike bright sclera and (ii) generalised apelike dark sclera version. Participants in two online studies rated the bright-sclera hominins as younger, healthier, more attractive and trustworthy, but less aggressive than the dark-sclera hominins. Our results support the idea that the appearance of more depigmented sclerae promoted perceived traits that fostered trust, increasing fitness for those individuals and resulting in depigmentation as a fixed trait in extant humans.
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Homogeneously depigmented sclerae have long been proposed to be uniquely human - an adaptation to enable cooperative behaviour by facilitating interpersonal coordination through gaze following. However, recent evidence has shown that deeply pigmented sclerae also afford gaze following if surrounding a bright iris. Furthermore, while current scleral depigmentation is clearly adaptive in modern humans, it is less clear how the evolutionarily intermediate stages of scleral pigmentation may have been adaptive. In sum, it is unclear why scleral depigmentation became the norm in humans, while not so in sister species like chimpanzees, or why some extant species (presumably as our ancestors did at some point) display intermediate degrees of pigmentation. We created realistic facial images of 20 individually distinct hominins with diverse facial morphologies, each face in the (i) humanlike bright sclera and (ii) generalised apelike dark sclera version. Participants in two online studies rated the bright-sclera hominins as younger, healthier, more attractive and trustworthy, but less aggressive than the dark-sclera hominins. Our results support the idea that the perceptual affordances of more depigmented sclerae increased perceived traits that fostered trust, increasing fitness for those individuals and resulting in depigmentation as a fixed trait in extant humans.
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Lionel Sims’ work has illuminated how Neolithic ritual communities ‘solarised’ the moon, deceptively transforming a lunar syntax into a solar one. But where did the ‘time-resistant’ lunar syntax come from? It is unlikely that patriarchal Neolithic societies invented this form of time-keeping. Yet it persists even in modern patriarchal ‘world’ religions derived from Neolithic forebears. Marx said ‘All forms of economics can be reduced to an economics of time'. How a society organises time reveals what it truly values. The question of the earliest human economy cannot be solved without a focus on women, the moon and menstruation. African hunter-gatherer cosmology takes the lunar cycle as the crucial timeframe for ritual, sex and economic activities. The shared sources of this cosmology carry us back to earliest human symbolic culture, the very origins of art and ritual itself, over 100,000 years ago. Contrary to presumed Neolithic gender relations, these hunter-gatherer societies are among the most gender egalitarian on earth. But how does such egalitarianism work? Women especially assert power through their bodies collectively to resist any threat of male exploitation. As the moon waxes and wanes, the dynamic of power switches in more or less playful battles between the sexes. Rather than patriarchy or matriarchy, we observe lunarchy – rule by the moon, expressed in a pulse of waxing and waning, ritual power ON, ritual power OFF.
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Language has no counterpart in the animal world. Unique to Homo sapiens, it appears inseparable from human nature. But how, when and why did it emerge? The contributors to this volume - linguists, anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and others - adopt a modern Darwinian perspective which offers a bold synthesis of the human and natural sciences. As a feature of human social intelligence, language evolution is driven by biologically anomalous levels of social cooperation. Phonetic competence correspondingly reflects social pressures for vocal imitation, learning, and other forms of social transmission. Distinctively human social and cultural strategies gave rise to the complex syntactical structure of speech. This book, presenting language as a remarkable social adaptation, testifies to the growing influence of evolutionary thinking in contemporary linguistics. It will be welcomed by all those interested in human evolution, evolutionary psychology, linguistic anthropology, and general linguistics.
It is a classical anthropological paradox that symbols of rebirth and fertility are frequently found in funerary rituals throughout the world. The original essays collected here re-examine this phenomenon through insights from China, India, New Guinea, Latin America, and Africa. The contributors, each a specialist in one of these areas, have worked in close collaboration to produce a genuinely innovative theoretical approach to the study of the symbolism surrounding death, an outline of which is provided in an important introduction by the editors. The major concern of the volume is the way in which funerary rituals dramatically transform the image of life as a dialectic flux involving exchange and transaction, marriage and procreation, into an image of a still, transcendental order in which oppositions such as those between self and other, wife-giver and wife-taker, Brahmin and untouchable, birth and therefore death have been abolished. This transformation often involves a general devaluation of biology, and, particularly, of sexuality, which is contrasted with a more spiritual and controlled source of life. The role of women, who are frequently associated with biological processes, mourning and death pollution, is often predominant in funerary rituals, and in examining this book makes a further contribution to the understanding of the symbolism of gender. The death rituals and the symbolism of rebirth are also analysed in the context of the political processes of the different societies considered, and it is argued that social order and political organisation may be legitimated through an exploitation of the emotions and biology.
Roy Rappaport argues that religion is central to the continuing evolution of life, although it has been been displaced from its original position of intellectual authority by the rise of modern science. His book, which could be construed as in some degree religious as well as about religion, insists that religion can and must be reconciled with science. Combining adaptive and cognitive approaches to the study of humankind, he mounts a comprehensive analysis of religion's evolutionary significance, seeing it as co-extensive with the invention of language and hence of culture as we know it. At the same time he assembles the fullest study yet of religion's main component, ritual, which constructs the conceptions which we take to be religious and has been central in the making of humanity's adaptation. The text amounts to a manual for effective ritual, illustrated by examples drawn from anthropology, history, philosophy, comparative religion, and elsewhere.
Maurice Bloch has for many years been developing an original and influential theory of ritual. In this book he synthesises a radical theory of religion. Rituals in a great many societies deny the transience of life and of human institutions. Bloch argues that they enact this denial by symbolically sacrificing the participants themselves, so allowing them to participate in the immortality of a transcendent entity. Such sacrifices are achieved through acts of symbolic violence, ranging from bodily mutilations to the killing of animals. The theme is developed with reference to rituals of many types, from a variety of ethnographic sources, and Bloch shows that even exogamous marriage rituals can be reinterpreted in the light of this thesis. He concludes by considering the indirect relation of symbolic and ritual violence to political violence.