Evolution of protolinguistic abilities as a by-product of learning to forage in structured environments

Oren Kolodny*, Shimon Edelman, Arnon Lotem

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


The skills required for the learning and use of language are the focus of extensive research, and their evolutionary origins are widely debated. Using agent-based simulations in a range of virtual environments, we demonstrate that challenges of foraging for food can select for cognitive mechanisms supporting complex, hierarchical, sequential learning, the need for which arises in language acquisition. Building on previous work, where we explored the conditions under which reinforcement learning is out-competed by seldom-reinforced continuous learning that constructs a network model of the environment, we now show that realistic features of the foraging environment can select for two critical advances: (i) chunking of meaningful sequences found in the data, leading to representations composed of units that better fit the prevalent statistical patterns in the environment; and (ii) generalization across units based on their contextual similarity. Importantly, these learning processes, which in our framework evolved for making better foraging decisions, had been earlier shown to reproduce a range of findings in language learning in humans. Thus, our results suggest a possible evolutionary trajectory that may have led from basic learning mechanisms to complex hierarchical sequential learning that can support advanced cognitive abilities of the kind needed for language acquisition.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number20150353
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1811
StatePublished - 8 Jul 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.


  • Cognition
  • Evolution
  • Foraging
  • Language
  • Learning


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