The Language Puzzle

Piecing Together the Six-Million-Year Story of How Words Evolved

New Release


By Steven Mithen

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$46.00 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around June 18, 2024. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A top scholar reveals the most complete picture to date of how early human speech led to the languages we use today  

The emergence of language began with the apelike calls of our earliest ancestors. Today, the world is home to thousands of complex languages. Yet exactly how, when, and why this evolution occurred has been one of the most enduring—and contentiously debated—questions in science.  

In The Language Puzzle, renowned archaeologist Steven Mithen puts forward a groundbreaking new account of the origins of language. Scientists have gained new insights into the first humans of 2.8 million years ago, and how numerous species flourished but only one, Homo sapiens, survives today. Drawing from this work and synthesizing research across archaeology, psychology, linguistics, genetics, neuroscience, and more, Mithen details a step-by-step explanation of how our human ancestors transitioned from apelike calls to words, and from words to language as we use it today. He explores how language shaped our cognition and vice versa; how metaphor advanced Homo sapiens’ ability to formulate abstract concepts, develop agriculture, and—ultimately—shape the world. The result is a master narrative that builds bridges between disciplines, stuns with its breadth and depth, and spans millennia of societal development.

Deeply researched and brilliantly told, The Language Puzzle marks a seminal understanding of the evolution of language.  

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  • “An expert education into 'the most fundamental aspect of the modern mind.'”
  • The Language Puzzle is well written and full of interesting ideas set out in an accessible way.”
    Mapping Ignorance
  • “How humans acquired their most important and mysterious mental skill remains a fascinating mystery. Steven Mithen describes the leading clues from diverse sources so clearly that The Language Puzzle is a sleuth’s equivalent to one-stop shopping. The origin of language is beginning to look like a solvable problem.”
    Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire
  • “An authoritative, dense, yet accessible synthesis, The Language Puzzle is a superbly up-to-date guide to the complex and variegated evolution of language. Encompassing a huge and multidisciplinary scope of knowledge and covering some five million years, this fascinating book shows that asking how and why we came to speak also means exploring what it is to be human.”
    Rebecca Wragg Sykes, author of Kindred
  • “A fascinating history of ideas and a masterful synthesis of the latest insights from linguistics, archaeology, genetics, neuroscience, and AI—providing us with a compelling theory of the evolution of language. The Language Puzzle is a tour de force.”
    Alice Roberts, author of Ancestors
  • “Relating the evolution of the human lineage while attempting to integrate linguistics, genetics, archeology, and semiotics in proposing a holistic explanation for language evolution is no small task. However, in this remarkably accessible narrative, Mithen weaves a thoughtful and engaging account across time, bodies, places, and materials. Whether or not one agrees, in total or in part, with the assumptions and assertions in the book, it offers a bounty of valuable insights and has much to teach us all.”
    Agustín Fuentes, author of The Creative Spark
  • “A remarkably comprehensive biography of the single most important thing we all share—language—written with Mithen’s wonderful ability to combine deep insights with a story engagingly told.”
    Robin Dunbar, author of Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language
  • “Mithen’s book The Language Puzzle addresses when, why, and in which hominins nascent linguistic abilities emerged and how, over vast amounts of time, they evolved into language as we know it. Chapter by chapter, Mithen gleans relevant clues—he calls them fragments or puzzle pieces—from fossil hominins, genetics, comparative anatomy, brain evolution, evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), the archaeological record of stone tools and art, and much more. Fragments about linguistics, for example, suggest that the evolution of language had its roots in apelike vocalizations that paved the way for the subsequent invention of various kinds of words, grammar, and, ultimately, abstract language and thought. Intriguingly, Mithen uses the puzzle pieces to attribute different levels of linguistic development to various hominin species and then draws parallels with the cognitive skills each species likely used to produce their kinds of stone tools and (where applicable) art. However, Mithen keeps the reader deliciously hanging on until the end, when he finally assembles all of the puzzle pieces into a big picture that spells out the different levels of linguistic accomplishment of australopithecines, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens. (You’ll need to read the book to find out which one is credited with developing the first true language.) Not only is The Language Puzzle extremely readable, it is also an epic achievement that, more than any other book out there, rises to the challenge of elucidating the immense complexity that underpinned the emergence and evolution of human language.”
    Dean Falk, author of Finding Our Tongues

On Sale
Jun 18, 2024
Page Count
544 pages
Basic Books

Steven Mithen

About the Author

Steven Mithen is professor of early prehistory at the University of Reading and is one of the most esteemed archaeologists working today. He has authored over two hundred academic articles and books, including After the Ice and The Singing Neanderthals, and was elected as a fellow of the British Academy in 2004. He lives in Reading, England.

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