Researh suggests that voice control in orangutans can help understand how human speech evolved over time.
An orangutan living at the Indianapolis Zoo has shown an ability to mimic human sounds and this voice control in the ape could provide more clues into the origin of human speech.
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Previously, it was thought that great apes, our closest evolutionary relatives, could not learn new sounds, leading scientists to believe that human’s ability to speak could not have derived from them. But new research suggests human’s speech and vocal systems might have come from great apes.
The way this particular orangutan, called Rocky, replicates the sounds made by researcher has a potential to provide insight into how human speech has evolved over time. Rocky was eight years old when researchers started teaching him new sounds. The orangutan is now 11 years old and is able to play a 'do-as-I-do' game with his trainer.
Researchers have shown that Rocky can mimic sounds made by a demonstrator, varying his pitch and tone. When researchers compared those sounds against a large database of orangutan calls collected from more than 120 orangutans after thousands of hours of observations, they found that these sounds were altogether different from those on database and concluded that Rocky has an ability to learn new sounds and is capable to control them as well. This kind of learning ability in an orangutan has not been reported before.
“It’s not clear how spoken language evolved from the compunction systems of the ancestral great apes. Instead of learning new sounds, it has been presumed that sounds made by great apes are driven by arousal over which they have no control, but our research proves that orangutans have the potential capacity to control,” said lead researcher Dr Adriano Lameira from Durham University.
“This indicates that the voice control shown by humans could derive from an evolutionary ancestor with similar voice control capacities as those found in orangutans and in all great apes more generally.”