When Names Arose in Human Culture, and Why We Have Them
A Very Long Time Ago….
His name was Kushim.
That’s about all we know about him. Except for the fact that he lived in Mesopotamia around 3400 BCE and that he participated in a transaction involving wheat. He wrote this last bit down, and the archaeological evidence has survived to this day.
The recorded transaction wasn’t notable. And, it would be wholly uninteresting except for the fact that it happened over 5,000 years ago. But it represents the first time we see a human name appear in the archaeological record. From this perspective, the modest notation of Kushim’s wheat is enormously important.
This history demonstrates that no matter the time period, geographical region or culture, names have been an integral part of the human record of experience. And, people obviously had names long before Kushim left his mark. Who you are, and the name you were given are inextricably linked. You can change it, but your name becomes the basis of your identity. And, your is the most basic identifier by which people know and refer to you. Kushim is long dead, but a part of him still exists today because of his name.
Names Can Change, Both By Choice and Over Time
When you were born, your parents gave you a name. More than likely it was the result of months of name research and list-making, eliminating choices and adding others. There were likely candidate names selected based on your unique cultural heritage as well as family names your parents wanted to honor. And some names may have made the list simply because they sounded nice.
This process has been repeated over and over far into the deep past. Your parents were given names based on the unique experiences of their parents, and they, were, in turn, named by their parents, each generation choosing names based on the past.
Through this process names can change and evolve over time. A name that’s enormously popular today might have been unheard of 200 years ago. That’s because names are a product of the prevailing culture, and culture is never stagnant.
Last names, or surnames, follow the same process. They originally arose as differentiators between people with the same name as villages and towns grew larger. Most often these were little more than descriptors based on a visual characteristic (Long, Green), a personality trait (Stern, Stout), or a person’s vocation (Miller, Archer). Over time these descriptors became formalized and began passing along family lineage As languages evolved, cultures merged and fractured, and marriages joined families, a relatively small set of surnames exploded into the diversity we see today.
Names Are Based in Language, But They May Have Come First
Names change because everything they’re based on changes. Language is a major driver of this evolution, but interestingly, names predate spoken language. This situation is difficult to imagine, but it’s exactly what science and common sense make certain.
The current consensus (see: linguisticsociety.org) holds that language developed in human populations around 100,000 to 150,000 years ago. However, modern humans arrived around 200,000 years ago. That’s when our ancestor’s brains reached a size and a level of sophistication akin to ours. Prior to that, very-nearly human ancestors had been around for some 2.3 million years.
We already know that chimps and other advanced primates can communicate in a monosyllabic proto-language. They use simple sounds to refer to predators and other dangers. Those verbal cues can quickly raise awareness among the group.
It’s likely that humans used a similar system prior to the development of true language. And this simple proto-language would have included names.
Consider a single person, living alone. They don’t require a name because they have no need to distinguish themselves from other people. And, there are no other people around needing to refer to them. With two people, names are still unnecessary. “Me” and “not me” are the only labels required.
The addition of one extra person adds considerable complexity. And, when groups expand to dozens of members, it suddenly becomes extremely difficult to refer to other people without a distinguishing label. A name.
Chimps don’t use names, as far as we know. However, our proto-linguistic system would have necessarily been more complex. Even if it wasn’t yet truly a language. Our brains are more complex than chimp brains. As a result, it’s likely that humans used single sounds or simple sound combinations to refer to each other. These were the first names. And they existed before we developed the ability to communicate with each other fully. Maybe 100,000 or more years before Kashim wrote about the wheat transaction. He certainly wasn’t the only one in his town with a name. It’s just common sense that his parents had names. And their parents, and their parents…
The Development of Names is Just the Beginning
The history of names stretches back hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of years. And, it’s a story that’s still unfolding today.
Names for people and objects were likely the first rudimentary steps humans took in the development of language. After we developed spoken language, it took humans another 60,000 years to develop visually symbology, as evidenced by cave paintings. Writing arrived 35,000 years later. And shortly after that, relative to the entire span of the history of names, Kushim wrote down his name.
- Why people have chosen to change their names. The evolution of the rules surrounding the naming process. How societal shifts have influenced names.
- How our current naming system, with first, middle, and last names, came to exist. Do we really need all three? How do other cultures handle names?
- The meanings of names. How the meaning of a name varies with culture, religion, geography and time.
- The significance of naming trends and trending names. What drives these processes?
- How you can trace the history and genealogy of a name.
EZ Name Change is a California Name Change Specialist. For us, the study of names never gets old. To really get the hang of human names, you likely have to consider all of human history itself. Along the way, you’ll bump into linguistics, anthropology, etymology, and history of course.Then there’s philology, psychology, sociology, and more. This story of people’s names goes as far back in time as you can imagine. It’s likely to go at least that far into our future too. Pretty interesting stuff. At least we think so.