Pantomimic fossils in modern human communication

Przemysław Żywiczyński, Sławomir Wacewicz, Casey Lister

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Bodily mimesis, the capacity to use the body representationally, was one of the key innovations that allowed early humans to go beyond the 'baseline' of generalized ape communication and cognition. We argue that the original human-specific communication afforded by bodily mimesis was based on signs that involve three entities: an expression that represents an object (i.e. communicated content) for an interpreter. We further propose that the core component of this communication, pantomime, was able to transmit referential information that was not limited to select semantic domains or the 'here-and-now', by means of motivated-most importantly iconic-signs. Pressures for expressivity and economy then led to conventionalization of signs and a growth of linguistic characteristics: semiotic systematicity and combinatorial expression. Despite these developments, both naturalistic and experimental data suggest that the system of pantomime did not disappear and is actively used by modern humans. Its contemporary manifestations, or pantomimic fossils, emerge when language cannot be used, for instance when people do not share a common language, or in situations where the use of (spoken) language is difficult, impossible or forbidden. Under such circumstances, people bootstrap communication by means of pantomime and, when these circumstances persist, newly emergent pantomimic communication becomes increasingly language-like. This article is part of the theme issue 'Reconstructing prehistoric languages'.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20200204
Number of pages1
JournalPhilosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences
Issue number1824
Publication statusPublished - 10 May 2021


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