Tag Archives: massachusetts institute of technology

Article: Linguistic-No Easy Answers In Evolution Of Human Language

Linguistics Anthropology is the study of human language since that is a characteristic that makes humans unique.  This article shows how bird songs in some birds are now helping in gaining a better understanding of the development of human language.  This brings together biologic, culture, archaeological, and linguistics together with science to learn more about the complex social interaction of human language and communication.  ENJOY, I did and learn about new bread discoveries in linguistic anthropology. 

ScienceDaily (Feb. 21, 2008)The evolution of human speech was far more complex than is implied by some recent attempts to link it to a specific gene, says Robert Berwick, professor of computational linguistics at MIT. 

Berwick will describe his ideas about language in a session at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Feb. 17. The session is called “Mind of a Toolmaker,” and explores the use of evolutionary research in understanding human abilities. Some researchers in recent years have speculated that mutations in a gene called Foxp2 might have played a fundamental role in the evolution of human language. That was based on research showing that the gene seems to be connected to language ability because some mutations to that gene produce specific impairments to language use, and because our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, lack both these gene mutations and the capacity for language. But the claim that the gene mutation is directly connected to the development of language is very unlikely to be right, says Berwick, who holds appointments in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.This kind of straightforward connection is just not the way organisms are put together,” he says. When it comes to something as complex as language, “one would be hard-pressed to come up with an example less amenable to evolutionary study.” And the specific Foxp2 connection is based on a whole chain of events, each of which is speculative, so there’s little chance of the whole story being right. It’s so chaotic, it’s like weather forecasting,” he says. “The noise overwhelms the signal.”Rather, language is almost certainly the result of a far more complex and subtle interplay among a variety of factors, Berwick says, and it may never be possible to connect it to specific genetic changes. “There are some things in science that are very interesting, but that we’re never going to be able to find out about,” he says. “It’s a sort of romantic view some people have, that anything interesting can be understood.”

Even defining something as complicated as language in a precise way is daunting, as ongoing disputes over the significance of language experiments with apes, parrots and dolphins have made clear. Berwick says, “If you can’t define what it is, why study it from an evolutionary point of view?”

It’s more likely, Berwick says, that the role of the Foxp2 gene in language is somehow peripheral to the capacity for language itself. He compares it to a printer in a computer system–it’s part of the overall system, but it’s not fundamental. Berwick thinks a more productive approach to studying the evolution of language is to examine it in terms of deeper, internal mechanisms.In his own research, Berwick has compared the structure of languages with the structure of bird songs, and has found interesting connections that may lead to a better understanding of some aspects of language.

Both bird songs and all human languages seem to share some underlying characteristics related to their metrical structure, Berwick says. There’s an underlying sing-song beat that is pronounced in poetry, music and in the songs of birds that may reveal a fundamental aspect of how our brains process language. Future research could probe this link further, even looking at possible connections between other specific genes, in both birds and humans, that might be connected to this sense of metrical structure.Ultimately, the important thing is to understand that language is, at bottom, something that takes place inside the human mind and is independent of any particular sound, sight or motion. The same internal mental construction could be expressed through verbal speech, through writing or through sign language without changing its basic nature, Berwick says. “It’s not about this external thing you hear,” he says. “It’s about the representation inside your head.”

Adapted from materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



Article Archaeology-New Technique Helps Solve Mystery Of Ancient Figurines

This is an article that highlights the Where is the Anthropology? for February 2008 on the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois.  This is the full text taking about new finds and discovers at the site and the new information that is being gathered through archaeology research and volunteers.


ScienceDaily (Jul. 7, 2003)CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Thanks in part to new spectroscopic technology, researchers have solved a great mystery concerning some of North America’s oldest pieces of sculpture. 

With the use of PIMA — a non-invasive Portable Infrared Mineral Analyzer — an interdisciplinary team of scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has identified the source and meaning of “spectacular late prehistoric” figurines found in several locales in the South and the Southeast — in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee. According to lead researcher Thomas Emerson, an archaeologist and the director of ITARP (Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program), the figurines were made of Missouri flint clay from quarries near St. Louis. Artisans at Cahokia, the earliest and largest North American mound society, which was centered in southern Illinois, in all likelihood produced the iconic figurines in the 12th century during an “artistic explosion,” but the objects were moved at various times and to various places, where they eventually were found. There now is evidence that after they were moved, some of the flint clay icons were recarved and retrofitted as smoking pipes, indicating a radical change in their significance. “There is a vast difference between bowing to an ancestral being and smoking one,” Emerson said. The figures appear to have been disbursed only after Cahokia began to decline in the middle or late 13th century, suggesting that the transfers were associated with “the collapse of the old order.” Determining when Cahokia-made figures arrived at their new locations “is an important link in the interpretive chain,” the researchers wrote in the spring/summer issue of American Antiquity. In their research, Emerson and his team analyzed 13 museum specimens originally found in the South and Southeast to identify the mineral composition of the raw material. Figures included a resting and a conquering warrior, various squatting and kneeling men, frogs and frog pipes and a “chunky” game player. Cahokian-style figurines arecharacterized by a highly developed realistic portrayal of human or near-human figures; they are dressed in specific costumes and shown carrying out specific deeds. Occasionally, however, they seem to portray mythical acts or beings. The transported figures probably were used for long periods of time in their new locations. Their importance “doesn’t lie in economic power but rather in symbolic and ideological power.”  The association of these highly symbolic figures with Cahokia allowed the researchers to propose that many of the themes — for example, fertility and warfare — that later appear in Eastern Woodlands native cosmology, such as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex,” were first codified in Cahokia in the 12th century.” Other researchers were Randall Hughes, Illinois State Geological Survey; Mary R. Hynes, ITARP; and Sarah U. Wisseman, Program on Ancient Technologies and Archaeological Materials.

Adapted from materials provided by University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign.