- The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2001

In the beginning, perhaps, was the vowel an annoyed "o-oo," or maybe a flirtatious "a-a-a," a curious "uh-uh" or an alarmed "ee-eee" for that matter.
According to new research, this was the sum of man's first conversations over 300,000 years ago, at least based on some inventive analyses of one very old skull.
The skull in question is "No. 5," unearthed almost a decade ago at the Atapuerca dig, a prehistoric treasure trove in central Spain that has so far yielded startling evidence of continual human habitation dating back 800,000 years.
The delicate, ancient cranium has left its own language legacy.
Based on the bone structure, paleontologists Juan Luis Arsuaga and Ignacio Martinez concluded that our early ancestors had voice boxes that were somewhere between an ape's and a human's; a tiny fact with big ramifications, they say.
"For the first time, we can say that an anatomically intermediate situation between the chimpanzee and man existed on the planet not only anatomical but also functional," Mr. Martinez told reporters at a press conference on Friday.
"That means that man could talk 300,000 years ago, albeit not in the way we do," he said.
This is the first fossilized evidence of such things, and is bound to cause a ruckus among academes. In the past, other researchers had announced that man's speech abilities had only started evolving around 100,000 years ago.
Skull No. 5 belonged to a member of the species called "Homo heidelbergensis," believed to be the last common ancestor of the Neanderthals and modern humans.
Mr. Martinez and Mr. Arsuaga theorize that their language consisted of some basic vowel sounds of the "aa" and "ee" variety.
But there were no fast talkers in the bunch.
"The sounds would have been slow and slurred due to the dimensions of the mouth and pharynx," Mr. Martinez said.
The findings are bound to add yet another dimension to the proverbial search for a "mother tongue," the mysterious root of human speechifying. The fountainhead has since evolved into some 3,000 to 6,000 spoken languages in use today, according to linguists.
Will the pair get some competition from rival researchers down South?
Anthropologists at an excavation site near the village of Orce in Granada claim they have finds that pre-date anything found at Atapuerca. In 1982, one scientist said he had unearthed the bone fragments of a human child 1.7 million years old, which "unleashed a holy row in the scientific community," according to media reports.
Critics called the small, brown, speckled fragment "La Galleta," or "the cookie," claiming it was horse in origin, not human.
Man's first words, meanwhile, fixate other audiences. The medical community charts with zeal both the timing and sound patterns of a baby's preliminary attempts at language, with "ba-a-a" and "da-a" the popular favorites, usually heard between seven and eight months of age.
Biologists wonder if language evolved based on the patterns of bird or animal calls, natural sounds, perceived threats, lovemaking or other influences.
Such things are also a spiritual matter. Some Middle-Eastern dialects cite the sound "hu" which can also be translated as "He" or "God" as "man's first word" or "man's first word for himself."
The Old Testament's Tower of Babel chronicles the fate of those who lost a universal language due to their own vanity.
One Christian children's magazine, however, got down to some basics earlier this year after a little girl wrote the editor and asked whether Adam and Eve "spoke Hebrew."
"Archeologists have uncovered languages older than Hebrew," came the reply at Discovery magazine, based in Montgomery, Ala.
"We don't know what language Adam spoke, but he was able to name the animals, and communicate with Eve. So, from the very beginning, man was intelligent and spoke a language. He wasn't an ignorant caveman who used grunts to communicate with others."

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