"… long before humans mastered language"

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Martin Robinson, "Piles of ancient rubbish could prove incredible temple that's 6,500 years older than Stonehenge was actually a house", Daily Mail 10/19/2011:

It has long been considered the world's oldest temple and even thought by some to be the site of the Garden of Eden.

But a scientist has claimed that the Gobekli Tepe stones in Turkey, built in 9,000 BC and 6,500 years older than Stonehenge, could instead be a giant home 'built for men not gods'.

Ted Banning, a professor at the University of Toronto, has branded it 'one of the world's biggest garbage dumps,' with piles of animal bones, tools and charcoal found there proving that it was an ancient home rather than a religious site. […]

The incredible site was put up long before humans mastered language or skills like pottery or metal work, making it one of the true wonders of the world pre-dating any previously discovered religious site by 1,000 years. [emphasis added]

David Fried, who sent in the link, noted that

A photograph of a stele carved with ibises (I think), scorpions and other creatures is captioned:  "Remarkable: The intricate carvings were done by humans who had not mastered language or other basic skills."  It is so remarkable, even though it did not appear on the BBC site, that I thought you'd like to know.

What is with British science journalism anyway?  The stuff about Gobekli Tepe being the Garden of Eden is par for the course, but this?

My diagnosis is that Martin Robinson thinks (to use the word loosely) that "language" means "writing".


  1. SimonMH said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 12:26 am

    The Daily Mail is to journalism what King Herod was to babysitting.

  2. James Errington said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 12:37 am

    The Daily Mail should not be taken as a representation of British journalism as a whole.

    [(myl) True, though BBC science reporting is often at a similar level of quality.]

  3. Jangari said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 12:50 am

    Not nearly as bad as the guy that (self-)published a book saying, amongst other things, that gravity caused the human larynx to descend.

  4. Alacritas said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 3:27 am

    As has been noted on this site before, writers always think they can get away with completely unfounded claims about some sciences (like linguistics), but certainly not others (like physics).

    I always feel a mix of curiosity and revulsion when I encounter this phenomenon.

  5. Buddleia said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 3:58 am

    Please, the Daily Fail is not only not 'science reporting', it is barely journalism.

    [(myl) This thought would be more comforting if BBC News were not so often written and edited at a similar level.]

  6. scav said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 4:08 am

    In that some people apparently let words come out of their mouths (or their fingers) with incontinent disregard for meaning or factual content, perhaps it's fair to say that the human race as a whole hasn't really *mastered* language even now :)

  7. Mark Etherton said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 4:59 am

    For what it's worth, the 5 most positively rated comments on the article all point out that the claim about mastering language is nonsense.

  8. es said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 5:10 am

    David Fried's comment is enlightening. How could the journalist think (and let others think) that people carved complex decorative patterns on stone, built houses in stone and so on expressing themselves in grunts? I do not even blame him for not bothering to check on Wikipedia a plausible estimate for the emergence of language. But what image of early history (and prehistory, for that matter) does this guy have?

  9. Warsaw Will said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 5:57 am

    Ditto to everyone about the Mail. On a different linguistic note however, what was new to me though, was that you could 'put up' a site.

  10. SimonMH said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 6:53 am

    Your link to the BBC's failings dates from 2006. As a matter of curiosity do you have information as to:

    a) the number of science articles the BBC carries each year

    b) the percentage of these that contain some form of scientific illiteracy

    c) a comparison of this percentage with the output of other reputable news organisations?

    I do not necessarily wish to defend the BBC, but I do feel that statements such as "BBC science reporting is often at a similar level of quality" ought to be subject to more rigorous analysis than you have displayed here.

    [(myl) No, all I have is the experience of seeing a surprisingly large number of suprisingly bad articles. (The one about herbal gum to increase breast size beats anything I've ever seen in the Daily Mail; and the parrot telepathy reference is wild as well.) I stopped blogging about bad BBC science writing a few years ago, because the repetition was getting tedious.

    It's possible that most of their science news is terrific, and there are just a few rotten apples in the barrel; I shouldn't make any quantitative claims. But I will assert that the number of shockingly bad articles from that source seems quite surprising for a serious journalistic enterprise.]

  11. Spell Me Jeff said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 8:04 am


    You have high expectations for a response to a comment.

  12. Trimegistus said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 9:08 am

    How the copy editor let that one get by is a mystery.

  13. Peter said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 10:23 am

    Very restrained of you not to take “Piles of ancient rubbish” for the post title.

  14. ENKI-][ said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 10:37 am

    At the risk of defending the Daily Mail, journalism as a whole isn't a particularly good source of information unless you have absolutely no knowledge of the subject matter in question (and even then, often not). Journalists have as their profession the task of writing about subjects they know nothing about for an audience who knows even less, and while pointing out the most problematic or socially dangerous misconceptions put forth through journalism is entirely worthwhile, pointing out the kinds of mistakes they make in every article is merely an opportunity for cheap shots.

    I have not seen any journalistic enterprise that meets my standards for good reporting in some domain wherein I have basic knowledge of the subject matter (even when that knowledge extends only to a smattering of introductory material from grammar school). So, I don't consider it worthwhile to read a 'general audience' periodical by anyone who isn't an expert in the field, and I'll typically end up on wikipedia (or with some other source intended for a cross-section of the initiated and the uninitiated) if I need more information about something.

  15. Aaron Toivo said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 10:41 am

    @Spell Me Jeff:

    When a claim is made about how something generally or "often" behaves, it does not seem unreasonable to ask how much real data there is on this, nor to point out that it's the sort of belief that could easily arise from a selection bias. The BBC claim is easily believable, but in science, or on LL, that alone is not supposed to be sufficient.

  16. Boris said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 11:31 am

    To me, the phrase "long before humans mastered language" doesn't even make sense on its own. To me, one can master something that already exists. For example, I can master C# (the programming language), but Microsoft didn't "master" C# when they created it. I suppose there was a time when Anders Hejlsberg invented C#, but others at Microsoft have not yet mastered it, but what about human language? Was it invented by one person or a group of people and then mastered by "humans" as a whole? Perhaps, in a away, but can this article reasonably mean that?

  17. Bobbie said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 11:54 am

    It should be noted that both metalworking and pottery reportedly began a long time before this temple/house was built. I can imagine there was quite a bit of language involved in both skills, and maybe a few swear words when the craftsman damaged his latest work!
    From Wikipedia: "around 6000 BCE … copper smelting became common in the Middle East…." "By about 8000 BC, it [Neolithic farming] included domesticated cattle and pigs, the establishment of permanently or seasonally inhabited settlements, and the use of pottery."

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/67961270/Gobekli-Tepe-temples-Ted-Banning-2011 appears to be the underlying scholarly paper. I haven't read it to see if it makes any claims about the likely time-depth of the development or "mastery" of human language. As to myl's diagnosis (that mastery of language was a sloppy way of saying development of writing), I suppose the idea that impressive architectural structures could be generated by an illiterate people might seem striking and noteworthy if you weren't aware of, e.g., Machu Picchu.

  19. zafrom said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    Not to split heirs, but I couldn't find a link to Dan and Dan's "The Daily Mail Song", http://www.dananddan.com/page/2 (March 27th, 2010), also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eBT6OSr1TI

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    @es: Okay, I'll bite. Why would someone need language to carve complex decorative patterns in stone? I can see a case that you'd need it to build big stone buildings.

    [(myl) From my point of view, the problem is not so much that language is necessary for large-scale construction (termites and some other social insects suggest that it's not), but that pretty much everyone thinks that human language is older than 11,000 years.

    Those who think that language is an "instinct" would date it at least to the originals of anatomically modern humans, 100,000 years ago or more; or even to the rise of Homo erectus, c. 1.5 million years B.P. Some who think that language is a cultural invention have linked it to the appearance of representational art, etc., about 40,000 years ago. I've never before heard the suggestion that it's less than 11,000 years old, except from young-earth creationists, who think that the whole of creation is younger than this site is claimed to be, and in any case think that language is as old as humanity.]

  21. Chandra said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

    If you were in an extremely generous frame of mind, you could maybe argue that the author might have meant "master" in the sense of "tame or control", and that writing can be thought of as a way of pinning down or corraling oral language… ? Maybe?

  22. es said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

    I am sorry. I might have given the impression I meant to make a particularly strong or interesting claim, but I really did not. I was just exemplifying the fact that those buildings seem to belong to a quite organized society and, as far as we know, even the simplest human societies have languages and there is no reason to think that things were different in 9000 BC. Fo that matter, my personal guess is that Homo Sapiens as a species has had language since the very beginning. But I will not pretend to be able to discuss these themes with any authoritativeness. I was just calling your attention the the fact that some people seem to have an idea of early history (and of prehistory, a fortiori) as populated by apemen. Nothing more.

  23. John said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    Hey, the DM is usually quite accurate, but it's just the selectivity and spin that it puts on things and the fact that the headlines generally only match the body in the flimsiest possible way. Although they made a mistake on the Winterval thing.

  24. Dan Hemmens said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

    As has been noted on this site before, writers always think they can get away with completely unfounded claims about some sciences (like linguistics), but certainly not others (like physics).

    This is certainly true for things like pop-science TV shows (nobody would think of letting Stephen Fry host a show about quantum mechanics) but I'm not sure it's so true of journalism.

    According to BBC science reporting, scientists have created artificial life, broken the light barrier, discovered immortality, found ways to regenerate severed limbs, and invented tractor beams.

  25. Gene Callahan said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

    @Aaron: "The BBC claim is easily believable, but in science, or on LL, that alone is not supposed to be sufficient."

    Aaron, have you unclenched your arse cheeks in the last few years?

  26. Mark F. said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 2:05 pm


  27. Andy Averill said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

    And we now have cave paintings that date back 50,000 years. They must have already had language, otherwise there wouldn't have been anyone to say "my five year old could have painted that…"

  28. Rubrick said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    I think the claim is quite legitimate, insofar as humans still haven't mastered language. I mean, just look how many people still split infinitives, use restrictive which, and pepper their writing with the passive tense!

  29. Victor said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

    FWIW, in my experience, British science journalism leaves a lot to be desired. It's not just the Daily Mail or even the BBC. The Telegraph, the Times and occasionally even the Independent and the Guardian engage in similar nonsense. A part of the problem is the tight news competition within a fairly small group, unlike the US, for example, which lacks a true national news organization (AP does not really qualify) and every medium size city has its own (heavily criticized) daily. So when one these organizations reports an outlandish claim, the others rush in to outdo each other. This does not mean that all British science reporting sucks–Mark is right that the "hard sciences" are far less likely to be exposed to quackery. But even they get their share of stupid reports. I used to post links to such stories with some regularity, as recently as last year, but, like Mark, I got tired of fishing in a garbage dump.

    There are actually two levels of reporting here. First, the editors deliberately select "non-conformists" to turn science pages into a full member of the tabloid market. And, as if that were not bad enough, they then let their reporters pervert the content of mainstream science reports as well–usually displaying their utter ignorance of subject matter on which they are reporting.

    This is not to say that US, Canada or Australia don't have similar problems. But the signal-to-noise ratio in the UK appears to be considerably lower and represents a particular news culture, not mere screw-ups.

  30. Ben Hemmens said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 3:36 pm

    The Mail, a daily reminder of things our civilization still hasn't mastered …

  31. Dakota said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

    Amazing that the hammer and chisel predates language. Can we speculate that the mastery of language began when the first hammer met the first thumb?

  32. Ethan said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

    @Victor: "the US […] lacks a true national news organization".

    I think that would be NPR, whose current news audience is somewhere between 13 and 30 million, depending on whether you consider the various news shows as having a shared or disjoint set of followers. Their science coverage is generally pretty good. But they don't put out a print edition.

    As a point of reference, that's 10-20 fold higher than the audience of US newspapers or news magazines . It is also larger than the audience for all US network TV news shows combined.

  33. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

    Reporting of medical research in almost all UK mainstream non-specialist media is dire, and the BBC is no better than the Daily Mail. I spend a nontrivial amount of time dealing with the misconceptions and sometimes cruelly raised false hopes this gives rise to.

    It doesn't have to be like that; the Economist is almost always reliable when it ventures into areas I know about, for example. So it's basically that they just don't care.

  34. J Lee said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

    we´re talking about a country whose most prestigious medical journal overestimated the iraq war death toll by like 90%

  35. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    Lay off my country, Lee.

  36. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 6:54 pm

    @es: Thanks for explaining.

    @MYL: I was just digressing; I understood your point. As for the termites, maybe I should have said "big stone buildings of a type that presumably hadn't existed a few generations earlier."

    If Julian Jaynes suggested that human beings didn't have consciousness till 1200 B.C., somebody must have suggested that we didn't have language till sometime after 9000 B.C. (though we existed at the time). But I'm not going to search right at the moment.

    However, I do like to wonder about questions such as what would be possible to intelligent beings without language, including our distant ancestors. Not that one can do much but wonder.

  37. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 7:06 pm

    @Jerry Friedman:

    The bicameral mind stuff presumably doesn't imply a lack of language. After all, you could scarcely misattribute words generated by one part of your mind to a god if there weren't any words to misattribute.

  38. A.M. said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 8:33 pm

    @Jerry Friedman,

    you can't really even wonder about this, unless you happen to know a way of sharing and processing information that doesn't use signs…

  39. Steve Morrison said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 8:48 pm

    Not to split heirs

    Anyhow King Solomon got there first…

  40. Matt said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 9:09 pm

    The use of "master" made me think of Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty. It makes sense: if these ancient builders had not yet invented money, they would not have been able to pay the wages the words demanded. There's glory for you.

  41. Chris Waters said,

    November 14, 2011 @ 10:28 pm

    Another sense of "master" that could actually fit: preparing an official original from which copies can be made, as in mastering tracks or CDs. In that sense, we may not have mastered language until the last couple of hundred years, if at all. :)

  42. Language is not writing | Synergy Blog said,

    November 15, 2011 @ 11:30 am

    […] at Language Log, a reader catches a Daily Mail writer saying that the Gobeki Temple, built around 11,000 years ago, "was put up […]

  43. Eneri Rose said,

    November 15, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    Journalistic accuracy is not dead in US colleges. My son is a junior majoring in journalism at the University of Maryland. He spent a lot of time researching and writing an article about the HPV vaccine. My son's journalism professor gave him a grade of zero, and refused even to read the paper, simply because my son mis-identified the CDC as the Centers for Disease Control. (In 1992, the CDC added "and Prevention" to the end of its name.)

  44. Janice Byer said,

    November 15, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

    Jerry, a book's been written on what our planet would become if we humans became extinct. Without language, how close would our world be to that? Language allows us to share knowledge and pass it to the next generation and the next.

    I'm assuming our hypothetical doesn't allow numbers either and certainly the essential-to-higher-math abstraction "zero" couldn't be communicated.

  45. Janice Byer said,

    November 15, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

    …not easily communicated, I should've said. We homo sapiens are wily critters.

  46. Janice Byer said,

    November 15, 2011 @ 5:55 pm

    For those who missed it, Professor Pullum recently posted an essay on the artistic mastering of not using language.


  47. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 15, 2011 @ 6:15 pm

    @David Eddyshaw: I just meant that I see those claims (no consciousness till 1200 B.C., and hypothetically no language till 8000 B.C. or whenever) as being around the same level of implausibility, so as a respected scientist made the first claim, I'd expect someone to have made the second.

    @A.M.: I wouldn't say signs by themselves are language—I take "language" to entail some kind of syntax, as I think most people do. And I'd say there's communication without signs, or at least without conventional signs. For instance, if someone in a crowd is stepping backward and seems to be about to collide with me, and I put my hand on their back, that communicates that I'm there even though I don't push hard enough to prevent the collision. (Linguists probably have a name for this sort of communication.)

    @Janice Byer: I was indeed thinking of sharing knowledge and passing it on, but thinking more of our distant ancestors than right now. What I didn't say is that I was thinking of such arguments as this:

    The development of more sophisticated tools, for the first time constructed out of more than one material (e.g. bone or antler) and sortable into different categories of function (such as projectile points, engraving tools, knife blades, and drilling and piercing tools), is often taken as proof for the presence of fully developed language, assumed to be necessary for the teaching of the processes of manufacture to offspring.

    From "Origin of language" at Wikipedia. The sentence cites Klarreich, Erica (April 20, 2004). "Biography of Richard G. Klein", and Wolpert, Lewis (2006). Six impossible things before breakfast, The evolutionary origins of belief.

    Is this argument valid? Couldn't children have learned to make complex tools and use them appropriately by imitating their elders? Especially since the elders could have guided their hands when necessary, pointed at important features, and communicated with them at a higher-than-ape but still non-linguistic level.

    And maybe there is some partially relevant information, for instance, on what born-deaf people raised in environments without true sign language have been able to learn. Or at a lower intelligence than the H. sapiens who made those sophisticated tools 60,000 years ago, different bands of chimpanzees use different foraging techniques, which the young presumably learn by imitation. Heck, some species of birds teach their young to forage simply by pecking at edible items.

  48. A.M. said,

    November 15, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

    Jerry Friedman
    Your example of communicating through pushing is what any herd animal (cow, or sheep, or buffalo) is capable of. Is it intelligence? The common understanding of this phenimenon implies the ability to process abstract – as in unrelated to the here-and-now environment – information, and discover relations between bits of information. The former is about signs, the latter is, if we don't insist on being too precise, almost exactly about "some sort of syntax", as in rules on relation of language signs to each other.

  49. Maureen said,

    November 16, 2011 @ 1:14 am

    Considering that most NPR member stations have about as much radio power as my vacuum cleaner, I find the claim of 13 million listeners extremely doubtful. Possibly there are 13 million people who claim to listen to NPR, or who flip past the channel on their car radio at some point.

    Most likely, it's the number of clicks on their website that they're counting. I could see 13 million of those in a year.

  50. Rod Johnson said,

    November 16, 2011 @ 10:14 am

    Your comment is like a transmission from the year 1970. In my part of the country (southeastern Michigan), I can hear four NPR stations quite easily. My local one broadcasts as 93kW, which is a class C2, almost a class C1, toward the top end of the spectrum of power classes. The network of public radio stations in Michigan pretty much blankets the state, and I imagine most states are similar. (It's frustrating, actually–NPR has devoured public radio in the US.) These are not low-power stations–they have a large and dedicated listener base.

  51. marc said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

    It's this kind of thing — reading articles on topics I know something about and seeing how shockingly wrong they get the most basic things — that tempers my trust when reading science journalism in areas I'm not familiar with.

  52. marie-lucie said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 10:02 pm

    The age of language: a few years ago I heard on CBC radio a young woman identified as an anthropologist state her belief that language was not older than about 10,000 years, and that before that humans communicated through pictures.

  53. Mike Maxwell said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

    I think Matt has it right. This is obviously a reference to Dumpty, Humpty (1871), where he observes that it's a question of who will be the master: words, or us. He then goes on to claim that he can "manage the whole lot of them." Evidently this temple wall long preceded the one that Dumpty was sitting on.

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