Try to imagine language in prehistoric times. It is easy to visualize a gestural sign language that members of a tribe might have used among themselves on a hunt. For instance, these hunters might have gestured to one another to maintain silence while hunting their wild game. Now move forward in time and imagine how languages crossed and mixed as the human population spread across the continents. As one language met a new, strange tongue, it is very probable that natural, gestural signing would have occurred while people figured out how to bridge their language gaps.
A Native System of Sign Language
People from the earliest times to the present have always communicated to some degree using their hands. Therefore, long before the documented events of the nineteenth century, it can be surmised that a native system of sign language existed among deaf people. In all probability, this deaf population would have used regional, geographical, or indigenous sign systems. They also would have created their own signs, such as the home signs discussed in Chapter 1. There is an interesting American historical record describing such an example between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.
Vineyard Sign Language
An example of an indigenous sign language community existed on Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was here, from the late 1600s through the early 1900s, that the hearing population and the Deaf community developed and used its own sign language system. An extraordinarily high rate of genetic deafness on the island perpetuated the use of the Vineyard Sign Language, as it is called. Due to intermarriage among the islanders, this high rate of genetic deafness continued for 200 years.
Nonetheless, this community flourished, with hearing and Deaf islanders working and signing side by side. Vineyard Sign Language was handed down from generation to generation through the native signers. With the arrival of deaf education on the mainland, the lives of the population began to change. Deaf children attended new residential schools on the mainland, bringing with them their native sign language.
According to census reports, deafness in the American population during the nineteenth century occurred in 1 person out of every 6,000. The rate for deafness on Martha's Vineyard, however, was 1 in 155.
On the mainland, these children eventually found spouses, married, and settled down to live. Thus began the gradual decline in the numbers of the Deaf islanders on Martha's Vineyard. But, at the same time, Vineyard signs added to and merged with ASL signs on the mainland.