What can our earliest communications tell us about who we are and where we came from? What can our ancient ancestors teach us about communication and its power?
In this episode we’re going back. Way back. Back 65,000 ago, to a dark, musty cave, where early humans and neanderthals were creating the very first cave paintings. Nowadays, that art is being studied by our guest Genevieve Von Petzinger. She’s a paleo anthropologist and author of The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols. Like an email, text or letter, the handprints and symbols Genvieve is studying are most likely our ancestors’ earliest attempts at communication. We also speak with Dan Everett, linguistic anthropologist and author, about the ancient language of the Amazon Basin's Pirahã people. Pirahã is not related to any other known language, and breaks the rules of what linguists thought they knew about the foundations of spoken communication.
All season, host Kyla Sims has been digging into how to communicate better. In this last episode of season one, join her as she gets to the heart of why this is all so important.
Kyla Sims: You don't have to go very far to find people who sound different than I do.
Clip: [Strong irish accent]
Kyla Sims: We are speaking the same language, but my Canadian English and this man's Irish English as you can hear. Are pretty different beasts. Languages change over distance. They also change over time. Here's a news clip from 50 years ago.
News Clip: This will also be the scene of the final peace ceremonies for which preparations were well underway.
Kyla Sims: Compare that to now
News Clip: and now a new home to 5,000 Marines. The first new US military base in 70 years.
Kyla Sims: There's a different pacing, different word choices. Like US language is constantly evolving. The ebbs and flows of words throughout the world's estimated 7,000 distinct languages is a veritable spider web of influences that crosses the planet over centuries and millennia.
This is the last episode of season one of Infernal communication. We've covered a lot of. Delivering bad news, cutting through the digital noise, cursing , FaceTime versus screen time , all these things that we work through and with to be better communicators. So today to finish with a big one, we're gonna go back to the very beginning.
Can we pinpoint where it all started? How did people first. What do we really understand about our connection to language and how important is it in making us who we are?
You are listening to Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase, and I'm your host, Kyla Sims. In 1860, a Parisian inventor named Edward Leon Scott De Martinville played the first known recording.
Kyla Sims: That ghostly sound is an unnamed woman singing O Claire Del. If we wanna know what anything sounded like before that, we are outta luck. That's as far back as audio goes 180 years. But there are languages in the world that have remained uninfluenced by others languages that are faithful to their origins.
They are sealed, they're time capsules that show us how people used to communicate. One of these languages is pk. Less than 500 people speak the language and only four people have learned it as a second language.
[00:03:00] Daniel Everett: thought I was a really cool kind of parrot. , I could say, I could say things back to them just exactly right, you know, because of my phonetic training, but I didn't have any idea what I was saying.
Kyla Sims: Linguist Dan Everett is one of them.
Daniel Everett: I am probably best known for my, uh, 30 years of field research in the. Of Brazil among the Pirahã people and the discoveries that have come from all of that research.
Kyla Sims: Dan went to live with the Pirahã people, with the intention of converting them to Christianity.
Daniel Everett: I went as a missionary and only one convert came out of that encounter me. That’s beautiful. I was converted to their, their way of thinking, which is atheism.
Kyla Sims: So who are the Pirahã people?
Daniel Everett: The Pirahã a group of about 500 or so hunter gatherers in the Amazon jungle. If you looked at a map of South America and you took out all the country boundaries, right in the middle of the Amazon jungle would be the Piha.
They're smack dab in the thickest, uh, area along the mice river. They are a language isolate, which means their language is not related to any other known language. They're sort of like the. Of Amazon, they're not related to any other known language. Basque is not related to Spanish or French or German or any other Indo-European language.
And Pirahã s not related to any of its neighbors. It has sounds that aren't found in any other language in the world. So where it came from, we're not exactly sure. Um, and there've been a lot of efforts to figure these things out, but nobody's come up with a good hypothe. They have a very unusual language.
It has no colors, it has no numbers, no number words. Psychologists came from m i t, from Columbia University, from Stanford University, from the University of Miami at different times, and they all did experiments to try to show that they had to have numbers because many people believe that numbers are innate.
Humans have to have numbers, but in fact, they don. This doesn't mean that Pirahã a are not capable of learning numbers. I met a Pirahã woman who's who only speaks Portuguese, who runs a store. And so she's making change and doing math all day long. So it has nothing to do with intelligence. It's a cultural decision.
They just don't need numbers. Uh, when I describe the sound system, just saying how they accent their words violated a lot of theories. When you're studying a language that's never been studied, you will find things that people didn't imagine because we think we've developed theories that will predict whatever we're gonna find in whatever language we look to study, but in fact, that's wrong.
Languages are rich and they're full of all kinds of surprises, and they tell us more about what a human can be than we actually think. We. , and so that's why field work and preserving endangered languages is so important to me.
Kyla Sims: I’m just imagining what it must have been like for you coming from the United States, a young man going into the Amazon to meet these people.
Can you describe what it was, what that experience was like when you first met them and first traveled to to see them?
Daniel Everett: It was a two hour plane ride from the nearest town on a small little cess. Single engine that landed on an airstrip in the jungle that the Pirahã built with another missionary. And I got off the plane and I was air sick and it was hot and I thought I was just looking for a place to throw up, but everybody was around me and talking.
And I looked at the little kids speaking this language fluently and I said, well, gosh, if they can learn it, I can learn it . And so I just started taking notes and, and asking things in English, and I pick up a stick and say, what's this? And they say, eh. So I would write down, eh, and I said, this probably means stick because I had training in the international phonetic alphabet.
That's pretty important training. And then I, I dropped it and I said, what's that? And they. And I thought, well that must mean the stick fell to the ground and, and then so you just start working from there. And the thought I was a really cool kind of parrot, . I could say things back to them just exactly right.
You know, because of my phonetic training. , but I didn't have any idea what I was saying, so they thought this was really funny. Um, they taught me bad words at times, you know, just, just to hear me say them.
Kyla Sims: Yeah, that's kind of like the crux of learning any new language. It's like, okay, tell me the curse words.
Daniel Everett:Yeah, yeah, exactly. Exactly. It turns out their sense of humor is very much like mine. So we got along really well. So immediately we struck up a rapport and we became. Very good friends, which LA has lasted, you know, half my life.
Kyla Sims: By studying the Pirahã, you found that the language didn't follow universal rules that had been established by other linguists.
For example, it doesn't have numbers, colors, or used recursion, which is. Inserting phrases inside others like Daniel Everett flew to London and talked about the story of his life, finding these differences. What does this say about the foundations of the way that we communicate with each other? What does this say about what we think we know about human communication?
Daniel Everett: To me, the simple lesson. Is that we're really smart. We're just really smart, and we use inference and we make symbols through our culture, and we agree on what those symbols mean, and we can make the grammar more complicated or less complicated, and it has different functions. A more complicated grammar is useful for some cultures because it communicates more information per sentence, and it eliminates a lot of ambiguity.
It removes the need for a lot of inference where a simpler grammar relies more on inference. Although I should say that the pk, although their grammar is simple compared to English, grammar and English grammar is simple compared to, uh, Latin. For example, the Pirahã verb structure is far more complex. So in English we only have five verb forms.
You take an example, sing, singing, sings. Sang sung. So that's English's five forms. Hit isn't even that. It's hit, hit, hit, hit, hit. That's all we have for that verb. Spanish has maybe 40 or 50 different verb forms, uh, but . As much as 65,000 possible verb forms. Whoa. So their verb structure is incredibly complicated.
And one reason they don't need such complicated syntax is because the verb without recursion expresses a lot of what they need, but still they rely tremendously on inference because I know what all the parts of the Pirahã verb means after all my years there. Mm-hmm. . But even now, when I hear a verb, I sometimes have to write it.
and figure it out and then infer what all that together means because I'm still not the native speaker I would like to be.
Kyla Sims: That's very interesting. I have another, a little more like philosophical question for you. Do you think that understanding the origins of language can benefit us in a complex world of communication in our modern day communication?
Daniel Everett:Yes, I do. Because if you, if you. Through the study of our evolution that it was with symbols that we got kicked off, uh, into this linguistic world that we now inhabit. Then we realized the power of symbols and how symbols can go across languages. and, and how it is that language is what our species is about.
We're the talking species. Mm-hmm. . There's no other species besides us that talks for a living or rights for a living that uses symbols. So you look at homo rectus, what happened to them when they got language? What were they able to do? What did this do? The formation of society, the formation of culture, communication through.
Is what gives us peace. It what gives us war. It's what makes us feel united. It's what divides us. It's the most powerful force that humans can marshal, and one hopes that it can be used. To our benefit to develop our understanding and not to push ourselves farther apart with misunderstanding.
Kyla Sims: I love that we take it for granted how powerful it is, and we take it for how complicated it is.
Daniel Everett:You know, in some of my classes mm-hmm. , I, I give students examples of how complicated their language is and they didn't even know that , you know, They know how to do it. They don't make errors. And yet, how hard is it to teach this to somebody? It's really hard. Mm-hmm. . And yet we learn it and we're natural at it, and it's, it's what makes us who we are.
So it's really exciting. I've never tired of it. I've been studying language for over 40 years now, and. If I have another 40 years, I probably don't. I will be studying language the whole time.
Kyla Sims: Okay, so all season we've been digging into how to communicate better in different situations. Dan Everett is really getting to the heart of why it's the foundation of society and culture.
It's what unites us. It's what divides. It is our most powerful tool. We have a need to study and understand our world, so we create frameworks and rules, but our rigid understanding of how language is supposed to work is only a guideline. People like the Piha are going to do it their own way with beautiful.
coming up. What makes us who we are as a species? Let's see what answers we can find. Looking at 65,000 year old.
We are talking about the history of communications, and in order to do that, we are going to have to go back real far back. Even further,
Kyla Sims: Keep going so far back that you should picture yourself at the end of the deepest, darkest cave that you can imagine. We're back here for a reason because this is the best place to find Genevieve Petzinger.
Genevieve von Petzinger: I'm literally like half cave troll .
Kyla Sims: Genevieve von Petzinger is a paleo anthropologist. She studies the oldest art in the world. She's also the author of the First Signs Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols. Depending on how you like to spend your day, she has one of the coolest jobs in the world.
I mean, other than mine, of course.
Genevieve von Petzinger: I guess you can't be claustrophobic and like my job, I either am working at caves and investigating really old art that our ancestors made, or I'm climbing mountains, or sometimes I'm hiking across deserts. So I study ancient art from the ice age, but I, I don't just look at the art because it's pretty, I'm really interested in trying to understand when did we become us?
What does this art tell us about the modern mind, about the origins of writing of. Speaking communication. It's a very small field and we're all super busy doing really interesting stuff. So that's the thing. There's a ton of room for four people and, and, and you know, there's this whole big wide world that needs, that needs to be documented.
Kyla Sims: Right. Oh, that's, that's so wonderful. Um, so, so I wanna talk a little bit about these caves. Can you walk us through what it's like exploring these kinds of caves? Like what do they look like? What do they sound like? What does it feel like when you go inside? What sort of things do you find?
Genevieve von Petzinger: Oh man. I'll tell you about ar, ellas is phenomenal cave in southern Spain.
AIS is is one of three caves. The art in there is at least 65,000 years old. . I mean at that point there wasn't even modern humans in Europe, right? So this is like the best evidence we have so far that Neanderthals made art, which is incredibly exciting in its own right. Um, obviously, again, I shouldn't disclose, I am team Neanderthal , which means I do think they made art cuz I mean, there's so much evidence of Neanderthals being like us.
So Ouris in particular, it's in the side of a mountain fairly near the ocean in southern Spain. When you enter caves, it's almost like you've entered a different world. As you walk in the sound of the outside world's just kind of gone and you're in the space where it's like almost negative sound, like it's so quiet, and yet you can hear like the drip of individual drops falling.
The sounds of our feet are really loud, but it's this really special space. It definitely feels like you've entered another realm. It is like walking into wonderland. Everything has these huge calcite formations coming down, and so they, they look like chandeliers, like frozen chandeliers coming off the ceiling or like frozen rivers, like everything is this incredible.
It's either gray or white. Just, there's something about that cave where there is so much glittery quartz, like tiny bits of quartz and everything that the whole main chamber, when you walk down and you get down to the level of the cave, the whole chamber glitters. It's one of the craziest things I've ever seen.
What makes our dollars really special is that there's red marks on some of these huge formations, like they were marking the formations. There's hand prints, so you know, sometimes you get these incredibly elaborate pieces of art. Other times you get like tiny little doodle carvings, like it's, it's so fascinating to see as well.
The sheer variety of, of things they were doing in there. Like, I think that's the big thing that sometimes people get a little bit confused about. I think they use art the way we use art, like in the sense that I, I think it was just, it was a part of their lives and, and you've got everything in there from the lou to like some naughty graffiti in the bathroom.
Like I think the whole, the whole run of it's there. To me, that's what makes the art so powerful is that everybody has to survive, right? Like we all need stone tools. Mm-hmm. , why are they making art? You don't need art, right? Mm-hmm. And so it's like a way to peek inside their minds to get some insight into like, how are they seeing the world?
What was important to them? What are they drawing? Are they trying to leave messages for each other or, or even like, really special stuff. This fall, I was in a cave in, uh, Northern Spain in ar. And there was an infant hand print in there. Yes. I'd never seen one that small before. And so somebody had dipped their, their baby's hand into the paint and then put it up on the wall, like up high near, and there was like the, another little hand nearby that was probably a three to four year old.
And then there was some grownup hands. So it was like a whole family. That was like just this really beautiful moment again, and then I'm literally standing exactly where they stood. It's really one of the privileges of what I get to do.
Kyla Sims: I love that image of like the baby's hand, cuz it reminds me of like when little kids go to preschool in kindergarten and we get them to do their little hand prints and stuff like that.
It's like they're just like us . You know?
Genevieve von Petzinger: I think that's kind of what I'm trying to understand right, is about 300,000 years ago, the first homo sapiens appear on Earth and, and now again, it's not like one day it was homo rectus and. So mom gave birth to a Homo sapien baby, right? It's like a gradual change.
But by about 300,000 years ago, there are people walking the planet who they look like us. They have the same brains as us. They question those, well, could they think like us? It's so interesting to try and figure out. Where and when did they start tapping into these capacities? And then I think the other big thing for me with the art too, is I'm really interested in like the origins of like storytelling.
When did we start telling stories? And I think that we're seeing some of those oldest stories in the world on those cape walls, which blows my mind to think, you know, maybe this is an ancestor, maybe this is a goddess, maybe this. A story that's like really important for this particular tribal group. So seeing those, those intangible things that are so often hard to capture, it's like we're peeking through a keyhole and then we're trying to rebuild the entire world from that.
But we just get these little glimpses of like, oh, wow. Think, look at the way they thought about the world. Look at the way they behaved. They're so like us, and yet so many things we don't know.
Kyla Sims: Your research and what you've discovered, How important has communication been for humans and our evolution?
Genevieve von Petzinger: I would say communication is one of the foundational discoveries of humanity.
And I say that because we're used to having graphic stuff all around us in the world today. Even emojis are like, they're literally direct descendants of this A and it's, we're still doing the same thing, which is an emoji is a really simple little character that actually embeds a huge amount of inform.
Right. Like we're actually imparting a lot. Mm-hmm. Like, I love using like the eyeroll emoji. It's one of my favorites. Oh, great. You, you're saying so much with not a word. Right. Our ability to communicate like binary code writing in books. I mean, putting people on the moon, like all of this requires graphic communication.
All of this goes back to that idea of origins again. Right? A and the big thing, the huge mental leap that took place with modern humans, what we're seeing is, or maybe like maybe even slightly farther back, and I think that's the big question right now is everything's getting older as we're realizing that we have vastly underestimated the age of many things, but somewhere back in time.
Somebody made the big cognitive shift of like, we don't just have to talk face to face, and then that thought is gone. We can write something down and when you write something down, it gives it a completely different life. A, and this is super key. It allowed us to store information external. Outside of the body for the very first time in a permanent fashion.
So my colleagues who work in Africa have been really digging into this cuz they're looking at these, again, these really early quote unquote simple pieces, but they're these repetitive marks. There's interesting stuff going on there. And, and as they've suggested that really these are the original artificial memory systems because they're a way to save information, store information, share information, retrieve information.
What do literally, almost everybody on the planet have today? We have smartphones, we have computers. What are they? They're artificial memory systems. They're communication devices. Whether it's somebody passing off, you know, a bone with some important marks on it, or you know, it's somebody making, you know, texting their friend.
We are communicating without needing to be in the same. and that is so powerful because it opens up our networks again to these huge possibilities of information exchange. It allows us to start controlling the world in a different way, right? Because once you can start tracking things like lunar cycles and seasons and like when did the salmon come back up the river, you are starting to take control of your world in a very different.
you're not just a leaf bobbing along on the surface. Now you have a paddle. You're starting to actually control your direction. You're starting to be able to conceive of the world in a different way. And so communication is absolutely at the heart of what makes us human.
Kyla Sims: And it sounds like you're saying communication in and of itself was a kind of tool that was essential for our evolution.
Genevieve von Petzinger: You know, we can remember the past. , we can imagine the future. It's called mental time travel. Most creatures on planet Earth cannot do that. And so part of that, mm-hmm. though is again, having those communication tools, the ability for, to pass on incredibly complicated information. So is thinking verbally some of the tools.
That our ancestors made really complicated and could not have been explained using grunts. Mm-hmm. like you have to be able to talk to explain how to make this fancy tool. Right. Right. And so the complexity of information we are able to pass on. Is directly related to our ability to communicate. It's almost like there's these important punctuation marks in our history, which are like, you know, humanity figures this out and then this happens and communication's huge.
And then it played a really important role when it came to surviving difficult conditions like ice ages or when it came to, Hey, we need to invent this new. , I mean, all the way up to the present. Like, Hey, let's put something on the moon. How do we do this? , the ability to save information, share it, retrieve it.
I mean, it's just, yeah, it's, it's literally central to what we do every day without even thinking about it now.
Kyla Sims: Yeah. It's like the, the water we swim in. Right. We just don't even, sometimes don't even recognize it.
Genevieve von Petzinger: That's a beautiful, I like that. It is. Exactly. It's like the water we swim in. We have no idea it's there anymore.
And yet, and yet, somewhere you go far enough back in time. It didn't. And that is, to me, that's weird talk about right. is try and figure out where and when, who did it start with and, and why,
Kyla Sims: how does learning more about the past of communication benefit the modern world in your, in your perspective?
Genevieve von Petzinger: So I think there's a couple ways.
Um, honestly, We're starting to realize that the Western way of seeing and being in the world, there's things about it which are incredible. I a lot of technology, I use it all the time. I love the ability to speak and work with colleagues on the other side of the planet, so I'm not anti-western stuff. At the same time, we have not managed everything with our planet necessarily.
Right. And so in that sense, you know, it's a very, it's a polite way. It's a polite way to put it.
Kyla Sims: Um, it's very, very diplomatic of you.
Genevieve von Petzinger: The thing is though, is that we've, we've kind of always, in recent years, we've really privileged the western way of looking at the world, right? Like, we're like, this is the way to do it.
and what we have not paid attention to is these huge deep bodies of knowledge that exist in different indigenous cultures around the world. Yeah. A and so part of this is, is recognizing that yes, I study really old stuff, but I am also part of a living story. And so the work that I am doing is very much transitioning into this more global.
Positioning in a way where it's like, I am wanting to work with these partners and saying, Hey, how can we support you as you take control of your own cultural heritage? Again, how do we help you do this? There are so many things that could be just, you know, that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, right?
And it's like these stories, these cultures, all of this information that is embedded in communication. I mean, this is the soul of humanity, and so I, I mean, I think it just behooves all of us to do our absolute best to make sure that as little as possible is lost because it benefits all of us.
Kyla Sims: I love that.
Well, Genevieve, this has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much. Oh, it's been a pleasure. Communication is the foundational part of our humanity. What a way to better understand our history and what motivates us than continual. To be understood and to understand each other. A hand print on the wall of a cave, a smoke signal, morse code, a letter, an email.
This podcast all attempts at putting something out into the universe in hopes of sharing, inform. It's a 65,000 year old journey, always gaining in technological sophistication, but at the core of it, we are just trying to communicate.
Today our guests were Genevieve Von Petzinger, a paleo anthropologist and author, and Dan Everett, linguist author and Peter Huss scholar. I'm Kyla Sims, and this is Infernal Communication. Brought to you by staff base with production support from Jar Audio. As this is the final episode of Season one, I'd like to thank all of our guests who have appeared on the show and shared something of themselves with us.
I'd also like to thank our listeners. I really hope that you've learned as much as I have. And had as much fun. And last but definitely not least, I wanna thank the amazing crew that made this podcast possible through all of their hard work and listening to me do a thousand takes each episode. So thank you so much to our audio editor and sound designer, Sam Seguin producers, Sean Holden, Tori Weldon, Jenny Cunningham, and Chris Wagner.
Project lead Maria St. OB and executive producer Chris O'Keefe. As always, don't forget to hit Follow on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows, so you'll be the first to know when season two drops. And if you like season one, please leave us a review as we get ready for season two. Let me know what you'd like to learn about.
Or just reach out and say hi. You can find me on LinkedIn or you can email me directly at kyla dot sims at staffbase.com . I appreciate all of your feedback. Until next time, thanks for listening.
Kyla is a writer, content creator, speaker and host of Infernal Communication.