Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

Language, tools and brain: The ontogeny and phylogeny of hierarchically organized sequential behavior

Patricia M. Greenfielda1

a1 Department of Psychology, University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90024-1563, Electronic mail:


During the first two years of human life a common neural substrate (roughly Broca's area) underlies the hierarchical organization of elements in the development of speech as well as the capacity to combine objects manually, including tool use. Subsequent cortical differentiation, beginning at age two, creates distinct, relatively modularized capacities for linguistic grammar and more complex combination of objects. An evolutionary homologue of the neural substrate for language production and manual action is hypothesized to have provided a foundation for the evolution of language before the divergence of the hominids and the great apes. Support comes from the discovery of a Broca's area homologue and related neural circuits in contemporary primates. In addition, chimpanzees have an identical constraint on hierarchical complexity in both tool use and symbol combination. Their performance matches that of the two-year-old child who has not yet developed the neural circuits for complex grammar and complex manual combination of objects.