Language is a key adaptation of our species, yet we do not know when it evolved. Here, we use data on language phonemic diversity to estimate a minimum date for the origin of language. We take advantage of the fact that phonemic diversity evolves slowly and use it as a clock to calculate how long the oldest African languages would have to have been around in order to accumulate the number of phonemes they possess today. We use a natural experiment, the colonization of Southeast Asia and Andaman Islands, to estimate the rate at which phonemic diversity increases through time. Using this rate, we estimate that present-day languages date back to the Middle Stone Age in Africa. Our analysis is consistent with the archaeological evidence suggesting that complex human behavior evolved during the Middle Stone Age in Africa, and does not support the view that language is a recent adaptation that has sparked the dispersal of humans out of Africa. While some of our assumptions require testing and our results rely at present on a single case-study, our analysis constitutes the first estimate of when language evolved that is directly based on linguistic data.
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