Most of our fellow critters surrendered to geography at some point in their evolution. One rodent species gets broken up into two species when barriers separate them and the factors that supported their initial growth (e.g. predator species or nutrients) are differentiated between the two locations. This is called allopatric speciation but is just a notion to ponder while following the rest of the post.
This didn’t stop humans, though. For whatever reason, when our ancestors encountered barriers they went over the mountains and deserts, crossed the rivers and seas (and oceans!), and kept on going. Why? The most probable reasons are disputes with family members (intra-tribal disputes), the inevitable inter-tribal disputes that arise after familial separations (because we have a hard time letting go), resource limitations (depletion of hunter-gatherer “raw materials), weather fluctuations (e.g. drought), and good old curiosity (“to see what we could see”).
Why these peregrinations resulted in different languages is a mystery to me but as we wandered I am sure we developed new words. Perhaps our oral word stores (our familiar/tribal/personal lexicons) just changed by dialect creep and then by lexicon differentiation. There was little need for inland valley people to develop a word for seabirds or dolphins. People who fished the oceans didn’t develop a rich thesaurus for describing desert weather.
As this diaspora continued and time passed (we’re talking , those dialects and these needs to discuss various matters must have changed so much that the initial language and the resulting branches just diverged. There were words that remained the same or similar (compare Germanic and Scandinavian words for “day;” numerous examples in other languages abound) and those that were new and unrelated to any previous word.
The stories they all told to each other diverged as well. The Ur-Cameroonians had different origin myths, different sun and moon myths than the Ur-Namibians (n.b. “ur” has the meaning of “proto” or “early” or “primitive” when added as a prefix), and so forth as the people traveled and developed their own stories about how “it” all works. They passed these stories on down to their children as they did for theirs.
Eventually, the Ur-Cameroonians and Ur-Namibians probably didn’t even know what the other was saying anymore. They could learn to understand but their languages had diverged to the point that they were distinct (or perhaps these two sets of folks could understand each other well but make no sense of what the pygmies said in the Congo rainforest). It is novel in itself that although the languages diverged they could still be learned; the brain could do both things—make new words and learn other (in a way older) words. Pretty neat stuff!
There are two breakthroughs here: the creation of language and (for it would be a long time before it happened as far as we can tell) the creation of written language and the implicit creation of storage media and engraving tools.
As far as we can tell, it is the Sumerians and Egyptians who first engraved their thoughts into clay and stone using the cuneiform and hieroglyphic methods in roughly 3400 to 3200 B.C.E. But cave paintings in various regions predated these folks by tens of millennia, perhaps as much as 40,000 years ago in Sulawesi. Surely, these were a way for the elders to assist themselves in their duty to tell stories. Once the wall was embellished, it was an artifact of the elders. It is likely that their children saw these initial paintings as revered lessons of the ancestors and that the paintings themselves became part of the story.
Today, we download books through the æther and consume them seconds later. This may have all started because the Ur-Cameroonians went walkabout and forgot their initial language. And that their children eventually came up with ways to depict their stories on bark or cave walls or clay tablets and eventually paper. And these letters you see before you, which aren’t before you at all but are on a server that you are mining for information just as I am doing the same.
Featured image: Khoi-san cave painting from the western cape of South Africa, roughly 3,000 years old. It is more common to see representations of people in African cave paintings than in the European cave paintings (e.g. France, Spain).