Orangutan communication sheds light on the origin of human speech

(ORDO NEWS) — To understand how human language arose and developed, scientists have been observing our closest relatives, the great apes, for many years. And sometimes the results of such observations are unexpected.

Any human language is made up of vowels and consonants, but most monkeys’ calls are predominantly made up of vowels, voiced sounds. So where did consonants come from in our speech?

To find out, scientists from the University of Warwick (UK) compared the patterns of consonant sounds in the vocal repertoire of the three main lines of great apes that have survived to this day – orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees.

Unlike other primates such as macaques and capuchins, great apes use both vowels and consonants, but their proportions differ from any human language.

So, for example, in gorillas, the use of consonants occurs in some populations, but is absent in others, and in chimpanzees there are only one or two consonant sounds, and they use them quite rarely.

However, when the researchers studied the vocal repertoire of orangutans, they were in for a surprise: these monkeys willingly used consonant sounds, smacking, clicking and snorting.

According to scientists, such vocal richness of orangutans is associated with their special habitat: while African monkeys spend a lot of time on the ground and can freely use all four limbs, orangutans live in trees, where often at least one hand must hold on to a tree branch.

As a result, they use their own mouth as a “fifth limb”: with the help of lips, tongue and jaws, they deftly manipulate food objects.

Perhaps the developed muscular control of the mouth allowed orangutans to expand the vocal repertoire typical of primates.

This suggests that our ancestors, too, had a shift towards human ways of communicating while living in the trees, long before they began to walk on the ground.


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